'People Power Defeating Corporate Power': Atlantic City Says People Have Say Over Their Water

Atlantic City, NJ passed an ordinance banning the corporate takeover of public water Wednesday. (Photo: Jeff Turner/Flickr/cc)

'People Power Defeating Corporate Power': Atlantic City Says People Have Say Over Their Water

"A ringing endorsement of the work done by community members to save their water system from a corporate takeover."

Atlantic City, New Jersey's city council on Tuesday easily passed an ordinance that requires a public vote before any sale of the municipal water system by the state.

The 8-0 vote, according to Lena Smith of Food and Water Watch, "is about people power defeating corporate power. It is a ringing endorsement of the work done by community members to save their water system from a corporate takeover."

According to the advocacy group, the new city ordinance should be seen as "a direct challenge to the state takeover of Atlantic City engineered by [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie." That takeover was enacted last November.

The takeover legislation is the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, the group explained, and was designed to give "the state broad powers, including the ability to sell off the prized water system to private water corporations with deep connections to leaders in both major political parties."

Residents saw what was at stake, however, and the AC Citizens United Against the State Takeover campaign led a petition drive delivering over 2,400 signatures to the City Clerk's office saying they wanted a say in a potential takeover of their water.

For some residents, a fear of the water crisis playing out in Flint, Michigan helped fuel their support for the ordinance. In fact, then-NAACP president Cornell William Brooks, who called the state takeover a "profound injustice," said in April that Flint was "a moral parable about the peril of giving up control of your water."

As Kate Aronoff wrote at In These Times:

Atlantic City now has clean, drinkable tap water. But resident and activist Charles Goodman warns, "If a private company comes in, that which happened in Flint could happen here."

Another concern for residents is cost. Atlantic City residents pay far less for water than their neighbors in adjacent towns. A recent study from Food & Water Watch found that New Jersey residents who get their water through private utilities pay an average of $230 more per year than those with public utilities. That's a big part of why Atlantic City residents like Goodman tend to oppose selling the MUA off to the highest bidder--and why the City Council hasn't done it already.

Whether the ordinance will take effect, however, is unclear.

The Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, as Philly.com reports, not only gives the state the power to sell off the municipal water system but "also states that any referendum voted on by the citizens of Atlantic City would be nonbinding, a provision of the takeover law that civil rights attorneys say clashes with other state laws and are prepared to challenge."

Still, Food & Water Watch is optimistic, saying: "Governor Christie and his appointed overseer could simply veto the Council's new law, a move that would show a blatant disregard for the public will. But it doesn't end there. This would simply send the question to the ballot for a citywide vote, giving the citizens the chance to override Christie."

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