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Sandy aid requires serious oversight

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on February 7, 2014.

A legislative investigation into George Washington Bridge lane closures has become inextricably linked to the distribution of Hurricane Sandy recovery aid. No one has tied the Fort Lee incident to Sandy funds. However, the roles of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and individuals inside the agency, in development projects both in Fort Lee and the storm-hit community of Hoboken, have raised questions about whether Sandy aid has been properly distributed.

The media have uncovered a few instances where federal recovery dollars were used to support development outside Sandy’s hardest-hit communities. This is the first time the public is learning about how these funds have been used.

To date, most New Jerseyans approve of how Gov. Chris Christie’s administration has handled Sandy recovery. In December, a Monmouth University poll found 66 percent of residents statewide were satisfied with the pace of recovery, although that number was down from 76 percent in September.

It’s a different story among residents who suffered the most from the storm. On Sandy’s one-year anniversary, Monmouth released a survey specifically of victims displaced from their homes. This poll found that only 38 percent of hardest-hit New Jerseyans were satisfied with recovery efforts.

The biggest issue we uncovered is that most victims don’t know where they stand in the aid process. As one Toms River applicant for ReNew Jersey Stronger assistance stated, “We were informed that we were wait-listed, (but) do not know how or why.” Imagine how these victims feel when they learn about millions in Sandy funds underwriting senior housing in Belleville or an apartment tower in New Brunswick.

Now the Sandy recovery is mixed in with the scandals surrounding the governor’s office. That means everyone involved in investigating these issues must exercise restraint, while implementing full transparency when it comes to Sandy aid.

To this end, I propose the following:

1. Get off TV. Lawmakers must refrain from discussing Bridgegate, Hobokengate or any other element of the investigation in the media. The rush for the national spotlight, especially among Democrats, is undermining the credibility of an inquiry that poses significant consequences for both Christie and the state. The only time members of the special investigations committee should face the cameras is during a public hearing.

2. Greater bipartisanship. The special investigations committee should add two Republican members to increase the partisan balance and ensure that those in the minority fully participate in deliberations about evidence and procedures.

3. Compel immediate transparency on Sandy aid. All Sandy-related community block grants awarded to date should be posted on the state’s website. The governor vetoed legislation that would have required this as “redundant.” His decision now looks like it had ulterior motives. If first lady Mary Pat Christie’s charity can post all of its Sandy awards online, so can her husband’s administration.

4. Let Sandy victims know where they stand. A proposed “Bill of Rights” should allow residents who applied for ReNew Jersey Stronger aid to track the status of their application online, including for which programs they are considered eligible, the potential amounts they may receive, how many other applicants are ahead of them, and when their name is expected to reach the top of the list.

5. Launch a truly independent investigation into Sandy aid disbursements. Given the governor’s foot-dragging and questionable appointment of his own “integrity monitor,” the Legislature should recommend a short list of independent special investigators specifically to oversee and report on the distribution of all Sandy aid to communities and individual residents. The governor should appoint an investigator from that list. If he doesn’t do so within 30 days, the appointment should be made by Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

Considering the damage inflicted on the state by Hurricane Sandy and the potential damage posed by the Bridgegate investigation, New Jersey deserves a full and fair hearing and complete transparency. Anything less is unacceptable.