A leadership vacuum in Camden may give Gov. Corzine and state overseers a rare opportunity for orchestrated change at the helm of the impoverished city.

Camden is without a chief operating officer, a redevelopment director, a school superintendent, and a police chief. The Camden County prosecutor, who oversees the city Police Department, left in March, and the provost of Rutgers University-Camden, an active partner in resuscitation efforts, has announced that he will leave in May.

The departures seem to raise almost as much hope as anguish in Camden, the nation's poorest city, as it struggles to recover from decades of industrial decline, corruption, violence and neglect.

"I view these vacancies in some way as a great opportunity," said Thomas P. Corcoran, president of the Cooper's Ferry Development Association. "If there were no state oversight, they would be a cause for great concern. But there seems to be a new attitude in Trenton about being involved in managing affairs in Camden."

"The governor has an enormous opportunity to redefine what is meant by the state taking charge of an entire city," said George Norcross III, chairman of Cooper University Hospital and a top Democratic political leader. "But all those positions are secondary. The main problem is that there is not a single, primary focus on a full-time basis at the state level on the affairs of the city."

Norcross said the state should consider creating a separate department to oversee the government and school affairs of New Jersey's most troubled municipalities, including Camden.

Joseph Balzano, executive director of the sprawling South Jersey Port Corp. on the Delaware River waterfront, said he was optimistic because of the interim appointments by Corzine.

Balzano said he especially liked the governor's appointment of Theodore Z. Davis as the city's acting chief operating officer.

The glut of vacancies was created less by design than by circumstance. But, directly or indirectly, Corzine will fill most of the jobs because Camden's government has been under state control since passage of the Camden Municipal Rehabilitation and Recovery Act in 2002.

The city's state-appointed chief operating officer, Melvin R. "Randy" Primas Jr., quit late last year after a standoff with his boss, State Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Susan Bass Levin, over control of city finances. Arijit De, executive director of the Camden Redevelopment Agency, had worked closely with Primas and followed him out the door in late December.

School Superintendent Annette Knox resigned in June, when the school board bought out her contract. Knox had been at the center of a controversy over grade fixing, test-score rigging, and bonuses that she paid herself.

The city hasn't had a police chief since March 2003, when Robert Allenbach was suspended for failing to improve police management, and the mayor and chief operating officer asked the county prosecutor to temporarily supersede city authority and take control of police operations.

The most recent "supersession executive" is former Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas, who was appointed by the acting county prosecutor.

The Camden County Prosecutor's Office has been run by acting prosecutors since Vincent Sarubbi resigned last March to join the U.S. Attorney's Office in Trenton.

The longtime provost of Rutgers University-Camden, Roger J. Dennis, announced last month that he would leave in May to become dean of Drexel University's new law school.

Except for the Rutgers post, the vacancies in Camden will be filled by Corzine's administration:

The chief operating officer is appointed by the governor. That appointee selects the redevelopment executive director.

The county prosecutor is appointed by the governor. The prosecutor appoints the head of the Police Department.

The school board will name the new superintendent, but the governor, who appoints three of the nine board members, has veto power over the school board's actions. (One of the governor's seats on the board is also vacant.)

Corzine, who was in Camden recently to help unveil the $72 million expansion of Campbell Soup Co.'s world headquarters, lauded the interim leaders and said a state search committee, led by his deputy chief of staff, Jeannine LaRue, was making "good progress" in the hunt for a chief operating officer.

"We're very close on the prosecutor's office, as well," he said as he hurried up the steps of a school building. Over his shoulder, he added that the state must stop moving in "fits and starts" and find the right people for the jobs.

Camden Mayor Gwendolyn A. Faison, who said the city's department heads were also interim office-holders, is tired of waiting.

"My directors are all acting . . . public works, code enforcement, finance, police. It's hard to figure out who's on first and who's on second," she said.

"I wish they would hurry up with their search committee, whoever is in charge, so we can get the operation in place. I don't think too many interims is healthy."

Contact staff writer Dwight Ott

at 856-779-3844 or dott@phillynews.com.