New Jersey's Atlantic City special counsel leaves for New York City

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After steering New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s efforts in to oversee Atlantic City, James Johnson has shifted to a new role in New York City.

Johnson, who Murphy tapped as special counsel for the Atlantic City transition in early 2018, began a new position as New York City corporation counsel on Nov. 4. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Johnson’s appointment on Oct. 31 just over a year after the attorney released a transition report with a framework for ending the ongoing state takeover of Atlantic City when the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act expires in fall 2021.

“New York City’s gain is New Jersey’s loss,” Murphy said in a statement. “Jim Johnson ably served our administration as special counsel in Atlantic City, working to put the city back on a path to solvency and long-term growth.”

Johnson now heads the New York City Law Department overseeing a staff of nearly 1,000 lawyers and roughly 700 support professionals. He succeeds Zachary Carter, who retired in August after serving as New York City’s corporation counsel for nearly six years.

State intervention of Atlantic City under New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs began in November 2016 under previous Gov. Chris Christie after the cash-strapped gambling hub nearly defaulted on its debt. Johnson, a former undersecretary for enforcement at Treasury under President Bill Clinton, recommended in a 64-page report late last year continuing state supervision through the conclusion of the five-year MSRA unless Atlantic City managed to significantly reduce its reliance on state aid or stabilized its municipal workforce.

Johnson outlined a series of recommendations in the transition report for restoring local control to Atlantic City by 2021 that urged providing increased training for senior municipal workers and purchasing data that can better track city services. Johnson also suggested Atlantic City redirect Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funds into new development projects and increasing financial support for youth programming.

“Mr. Johnson served a vitally important and timely role for the city and its wide range of stakeholders,” said Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of Rutgers University's Bloustein Local Government Research Center. “His work provided a foundation for what could and needed to happen next.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said in April when releasing a separate 21-page plan aimed at generating fiscal momentum to Atlantic City that some of Johnson’s recommendations had already come to fruition including implementation of a citywide master plan. The city also began providing in-person ethics training to all municipal employees with all city supervisors taking certified public manager training administered by Rutgers University.

The DCA credited Johnson with leaving a “significant” legacy of service in his 20 months working with Atlantic City.

“Because Jim’s role was a transitional one, his planning and work was focused on better positioning the City and DCA to address challenges facing Atlantic City,” said DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan. “As a result, DCA is in a very good place to continue to steadily execute the long-range strategies for Atlantic City.”

Atlantic City, still junk-rated, received two rating upgrades under Johnson’s watch starting with a four-notch boost by S&P Global Ratings in October 2018 to B stemming largely from fiscal strides achieved under state control. Moody’s Investors Service upgraded the city two notches to B2 from Caa3 shortly after citing an improved casino industry and efforts to diversify the tax base.

“By working with a wide range of government, business, non-profit, and civic stakeholders he was able to understand the ground truth and synthesize their concerns and that resulted in coordination and cooperation between stakeholders that can move the ball forward,” Pfeiffer said. “The parties still need to spend the necessary time, attention and money to continue the coordination and management to bring efforts together.”

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