Atlantic City is getting a new boss.
Rob Long, deputy commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), will begin overseeing the Atlantic City government. Long will be taking over the roles vacated by Timothy Cunningham and Jeffrey Chiesa.
The announcement of Cunningham’s decision to leave came as a surprise to the City Council during its regular monthly meeting.
The Press of Atlantic City interviewed Cunningham about his reasons for leaving. “Family interests” is what it all comes down to. Long will begin his new role mid-August when Cunningham formally exits the administration.
Cunningham is the director of the Division of Local Government Services within the DCA. He has been the point person for the state’s management of Atlantic City since 2016. That is when then-Gov. Chris Christie‘s administration seized operational control of Atlantic City after Christie signed the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act.
Chiesa, a Christie ally, and his law firm were appointed a state designee by Christie. The firm billed more than $5.1 million since 2016 for legal services related to the management and recovery of the resort town.
Many people, including the Atlantic City City Council, balked at the high price tag. Gov. Phil Murphy relieved Chiesa of his role in spring 2018.
Long taking on a hybrid of responsibilities for Atlantic City
Lisa Ryan, the spokeswoman for the DCA, said the administration “hopes to announce a new Division of Local Government Services director in the near future.” It is in the process of pursuing qualified candidates to move into Cunningham’s position permanently.
Until then, Long is stepping into what he views as a role with a “hybrid” of responsibilities.
“This is a position I asked for and one that I see as critical to strengthening New Jersey,” Long said.
Atlantic City has seen good progress toward returning the management of the city back to local officials. Hundreds of millions of dollars of shuttered properties have been auctioned off, two new casinos opened their doors, and optimism on the Boardwalk hasn’t been this high in years.
Long’s focus will be to partner with the mayor and city council members to keep the momentum going and put the decision-making authority back where it belongs.
In addition to maintaining a focus on strengthening Atlantic City’s financial situation, Long will also assume a seat on the board of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
Cunningham reflects on his tenure
Cunningham spoke with the lieutenant governor and DCA commissioner, Sheila Oliver, back in December about his decision to transition out of his role. His initial timeline was early June.
“It took a little bit longer,” Cunningham said. “But I have a wonderful relationship with the lieutenant governor, and I’m leaving for no other reason than personal circumstances.”
Cunningham has been managing Atlantic City for more than three years. His responsibilities included control over all financial and hiring decisions. The daily involvement involved a tremendous amount of authority.
“I lost sleep over it some nights,” he said. “It’s an enormous responsibility.”
Even so, Cunningham counts the ability to “stabilize the decision-making process” at city hall as one of his biggest successes.
It’s no surprise the relationship between local officials and Cunningham was tense at first. That didn’t stop the teamwork required to pass two budgets that helped ease the tax burden on property owners and residents.
The city council publicly honored Cunningham in July. Cunningham was moved to tears by the gesture.
“We have a history that goes back but I’ve always respected his professionalism,” said Council President Marty Small Sr. “He had to make tough decisions. … Getting to know him better, personally and professionally, I came to believe, and many of my colleagues up here (on the dais), even though we had tremendous disagreements with him on some decisions, we can honestly say, as we sit here today, (from) where we were two years ago, he definitely cares about Atlantic City.”
Cunningham plans on returning to private practice and will be joining Archer & Greiner, a law firm with several offices in New Jersey, plus Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania.