ATLANTIC CITY, NJ — After months of organizing, 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.” In the letter state authorities made it clear that organizing made the difference.
For years, I worked with civic associations, local groups, the Atlantic City branch of the NAACP, NJ Appleseed, ACLU of NJ, 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.
In November 2014, an advisory commission for Gov. Chris Christie first suggested water privatization in Atlantic City, but the city council repeatedly decided against dissolving its Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA), which would have begun the privatization process.
But then, in January of 2016, Sen. Steve Sweeney, the most powerful Democrat in the state, introduced a bill to take over the city and give sweeping powers to an emergency manager who could sell city assets like the water.
We saw how state takeover laws in places like Detroit and Flint stripped away local democracy and threatened public access to clean, affordable water service. It would be no different in Atlantic City.
We developed an organizing strategy backed up by a solid legal framework: Gather petition signatures on a citizen’s initiative, and introduce an ordinance demanding the right to full public participation in any water sale. State law gives the right to vote to all New Jersey voters. The takeover law stripped city residents of that right, so we would have to enact a city law giving residents a right we believe they already have.
Together with leaders from the Atlantic City NAACP and AC Civic Associations United, we organized a large on-the-ground campaign. We went around the city making presentations and recruiting volunteers. 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 and talked with residents about their right to decide the future of their water, and gathering petition signatures as they went. We held city-wide canvass days almost every Saturday from March until June.
Petitions flowed in and by June we submitted over 2,400 signatures to the city. At the July 11 meeting, the City Council unanimously passed the ordinance 8-0.
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. Last month’s announcement put the final nail in the coffin on the state’s water privatization scheme.
Keeping the water system public is a huge victory for the 100-plus residents and activists who went door to door fighting for their human right to clean water. They made this victory happen. 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. To restore democratic and civil rights for the city’s residents, the state takeover of Atlantic City must end. Through education and organizing we built a people-powered movement to protect public water and local sovereignty.
The people have spoken, and their message was clear: “Our water, our voice.” We won!