ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — For over a decade, things had been quiet in Atlantic City, the seaside gambling resort known as much for its colorful political corruption as for its slot machines and saltwater taffy.
But that came to an end this month when Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. pleaded guilty to wire fraud, admitting in a federal courtroom that he had stolen $87,000 from a youth basketball club he founded and spent much of the money on himself.
He became the fifth Atlantic City mayor to be busted on corruption charges since the 1970s. The city’s history of graft and dirty-dealings at City Hall is so rich that HBO based the award-winning TV series “Boardwalk Empire” on it, focusing on turn-of-the-century politicians and crooks.
Tuesday evening, Atlantic City got its next mayor, a councilman who lost to Gilliam in a bitterly fought primary two years ago.
Council President Marty Small took over as acting mayor when Gilliam resigned on Oct. 3 and was chosen by the City Council to serve as mayor for just over a year. In the November 2020 general election, a candidate will be elected to serve the remaining final year of Gilliam’s term.
“There’s been a lot of bad news and a lot of bad press,” Small said after being chosen by the Council. “We’re going to work together to make this city the place we all know it can be. This is something I have sought for a long while, and I sought it for all the right reasons. Please be patient with the city of Atlantic City: God isn’t through with us yet.”
The council chose among three nominees put forth by the city’s Democratic party: Small, Pamela Thomas-Fields and Gwendolyn Callaway Lewis. Both women said they support Small’s bid.
Small took an unpaid leave of absence as dean of athletics with a charter school, and is resigning his City Council seat. However, he was running unopposed for re-election to that council seat, and is likely to be re-elected to it because the deadline for changing election ballots has already passed.
He said the same process employed to choose him as mayor will be used to recommend three nominees for the council seat.
Small will earn $103,000 per year as mayor.
He faces an array of tough problems, including a state takeover of most important functions of government. New Jersey, under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and a Democratic-controlled Legislature that concluded the city either could not or would not make the painful choices necessary to get its fiscal house in order.
Meanwhile, a group led by a former state senator and the head of Atlantic City’s main casino workers union is conducting a petition drive to change the way Atlantic City governs itself.
Atlantic City Residents for Good Government’s wants to force a referendum on downsizing the council and eliminating a directly elected mayor. Instead, the council would hire a city manager. That effort is already meeting resistance from some elected officials and residents long wary of outside control of the city and the millions in taxes it generates.
The tax burden on property owners has drastically increased in recent years, discouraging home ownership and investment in the city.
And the casino industry, the city’s main employer, is dealing with the effects of last year’s expansion that added two more gambling halls to the seven that were already in existence, resulting in lower profits for the industry as a whole.
Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC