We finally got it in writing: Atlantic City’s water system will stay in the hands of the people of Atlantic City.
After months of organizing, this week state officials released a letter that announced: “The State of New Jersey will not sell or lease the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority to a private company.” State authorities made it clear that organizing made the difference; as the letter puts it, “the State recognizes the important role the MUA plays in the community at large and the visible pride that city residents and businesses have in their water system. This allegiance was evident in this year’s petition drive in support of the MUA and in the City Council’s vote to give city residents a say in any dissolution of the MUA.”
The Atlantic City MUA provides clean, affordable drinking water service to thousands of residents living in Atlantic City. And it will continue to do so.
For years, I worked with civic associations, local groups, the Atlantic City branch of the NAACP, NJ Appleseed, ACLU of New Jersey, and public unions to protect the water system from privatization. Thanks to our outreach and organizing, residents of Atlantic City know the threats of water privatization— higher rates, diminished service, and the loss of local control and jobs — and the dangers of the state’s power grab.
But then, in January of 2016, Senator Steve Sweeney, the most powerful Democrat in the state, introduced a bill to take over the city and strip away decision-making powers from the locally elected council members. Sweeney’s deceptively titled “Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act” gave sweeping powers to an emergency manager appointed by Governor Chris Christie, who could veto meeting minutes, rewrite union contracts and sell city assets like the Atlantic City MUA.
We have seen how state takeover laws in places like Detroit and Flint have stripped away local democracy and threatened public access to clean, affordable water service. It would be no different in Atlantic City.
Working with a team of lawyers from the NAACP, ACLU of New Jersey, and NJ Appleseed, we developed an organizing strategy backed up by a solid legal framework: We would gather petition signatures on a citizen’s initiative, and introduce an ordinance to City Council demanding the right to full public participation in any sale of the water utility. State law gives this right to referendum (a citizen’s vote) to all New Jersey voters. The takeover law stripped Atlantic City residents of that right, so we would have to confront that directly by enacting a city law giving residents a right we believe they already have.
Together with local leaders like Charles Goodman from the Atlantic City NAACP, Carol Ruffu of Chelsea Heights Neighborhood Association, Libbie Wills from the First Ward Civic Association, and Augusta Garrett from the Venice Park Civic Association, we organized a large on-the-ground campaign. We went to all five civic associations to make presentations and recruit volunteers. We visited with local pastors and groups like Black Lives Matter Atlantic City, National Action Network of Atlantic City, and the Green Party of Atlantic County. And we came up with a name for our campaign—AC Citizens Against the State Takeover—and a slogan: Our Water, Our Voice.
Folks went out into Atlantic City neighborhoods and talked with residents about their right to decide the future of their water, gathering petition signatures as they went. Many residents were unaware of the takeover law and what it would mean for their water, but most were more than willing to lend their support. We held city-wide canvass days with local volunteers and allies from around the region almost every Saturday from March until June.
After Christie’s overseer opted not to veto that vote, the ordinance to ensure public participation in the sale of the water system became law. This week’s announcement put the final nail in the coffin on the state’s water privatization scheme.
Keeping Atlantic City’s water system in public hands is a huge victory for the residents and activists who went door-to-door fighting for their human right to clean water. The water utility should remain in public hands to protect the system from corporate water profiteers.
This is a big win, but there’s more to be done. The incoming Phil Murphy administration must end the state takeover of Atlantic City, and restore democratic and civil rights for the city’s residents. We must continue to stand with Atlantic City residents to protect local sovereignty, public water, and workers’ rights until the very end. By educating residents, engaging them in this process, and organizing an entire city to resist the governor’s plan, we have built a people-powered movement to protect public water and local sovereignty.
More than 100 volunteers went door-to-door fighting to protect the Atlantic City MUA. They are the ones who made this victory happen. The people have spoken, and their message was clear: “Our water, our voice.” We won.