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 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 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.

Jeff Brenner, a doctor in Camden who has been active in efforts to improve the city, said: "The people that have left - it was time for them to step down. This is a chance to bring in new faces with new ideas and new energy."

The glut of vacancies was created less by design than by circumstance. But, directly or indirectly, Corzine will fill most of the jobs, since 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, 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, which is to be filled by the president of the university in New Brunswick, 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.)

John Kromer, a senior consultant at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania and the interim director of Camden's Redevelopment Agency, said, "Camden has a tremendous opportunity to rebound" with new leadership.

"Poor leadership kills everything," he said. "This is a chance to put things in order."

Corzine seems unconcerned about the vacuum. He 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 last week.

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.

Howard Gillette, a Rutgers history professor and the author of the book Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City, said Corzine is a much more active player in Camden's affairs than was his elected predecessor, Jim McGreevey.

"It's so obvious this is a big transition period," Gillette said, adding that "not everyone is enamored" of the first four years of state control under the Recovery Act.

"This gives us a chance to take stock and change course," Gillette said. "It's really the governor's show now."

Louis Bezich, the former Camden County administrator who chairs the Camden Higher Education and Health Care Task Force, said Camden's higher education and medical institutions - the "eds and meds" - were creating economic forces that would be more important than any individual appointments. He cited construction by Camden County College, Cooper University Hospital, Rutgers, and Lourdes Medical Center.

"In terms of the long-term prospects, the core qualities that allowed Camden to be a great city once are still there," he said, citing the city's proximity to Philadelphia and its waterfront location. "The individuals in city government may come and go, but more important is the existence of the institutions."

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden), a chief sponsor of the Recovery Act, said, "We need to take our time and get it right, so that the next years are productive." He said candidates for chief operating officer had been "winnowed down to a short list."

Norcross, who plays an influential role in what happens in Camden as chairman of Cooper, chairman of Commerce Insurance Services, and a top leader in the Democratic Party, said the state needed "somebody who goes to bed every night thinking about Camden and wakes up every morning thinking about the problems of Camden and how to solve them."

One formidable figure in Camden's recent past is less active in the leadership search. State Sen. Wayne Bryant (D., Camden), the chief architect of the Recovery Act and the city's leading political benefactor, is under investigation by state and federal investigators. He has stepped down from his powerful post as chair of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and last week resigned from his law firm.

Contact staff writer Dwight Ott

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