8/16 Christie agreed to be more transparent on Sandy relief.  Will he?

8/16/15 Christie agreed to be more transparent on Sandy relief. Will he? | Editorial Star Ledger

The Christie administration has long been inexcusably secretive when it comes to Hurricane Sandy recovery. That’s why the governor’s recent signing of a bill to increase transparency around the aid distribution process comes as such a welcome surprise.

This new law, sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, will give renters and homeowners who applied for disaster relief a personalized timeline that will make clear how long the process should take. This is important because all along, storm victims have complained of confusion, disorganization and delays.

It’s been nearly three years since the storm hit, yet only a small minority of the thousands approved for rebuilding grants have actually been able to rebuild. Most have no real sense of what they need to do to move forward, poll after poll has found. In the meantime, hundreds of homes have slipped into foreclosure.

MORE STAR-LEDGER EDITORIALS The state says more than half the money has now been handed out to homeowners. Yet of the more than 15,000 who originally sought help, just 1,450 homes have actually been rebuilt. Little more than half have been elevated. About 4,000 people dropped out of the program altogether, for reasons unknown.

That’s troubling. Some may not have wanted to elevate their homes, or get flood insurance. But others likely just got tired of waiting.

The state certainly doesn’t bear all the blame for the delays, but the very least it could do is make this process more user-friendly. Until now, Christie had called Sweeney’s bill unnecessary and duplicative. Twice before, he gutted it, even though it had passed unanimously — and the Republicans who voted for it refused to stand up to him.

So while the governor deserves due credit for finally stepping in, above all, Sandy victims can thank Sweeney, for refusing to give up. Maybe, in the face of rising public pressure — including angry blowups not only here but in Iowa — Christie felt he had to do something. So he signed the bill.

Now, we hope his administration actually lives up to its promises.

The governor’s record on this isn’t great. When Christie was first inaugurated, he promised a new era of transparency in state government. Yet right from the beginning, that didn’t seem to apply to Sandy aid. He refused to send his top Sandy officials to legislative hearings until well after his re-election. If not for a public records request from Fair Share Housing, we might never have known that the lead contractor for the state’s largest rebuilding program had been rejecting eligible storm victims.

The state apparently had no plans to fix this. And it continues to circumvent another bipartisan law sponsored by Sweeney, which requires close oversight of the relief funds that go to state contractors. Christie officials have refused to disclose the bulk of their spending in any detail, including the money that went to the incompetent contractor that they quietly fired.

Instead, they set up a system to ensure that integrity monitor reports are not released to the legislature, but simply summarized. It’s coordinated by a firm that employs — guess who? — Christie’s brother, Todd.

So yes, the governor did the right thing by signing Sweeney’s transparency bill. But for the sake of the many people who still aren’t home, we hope he follows not only the letter of this law, but the spirit of it.