Sweeney pitches 'Sandy Bill of Rights' to frustrated Shore crowd

"We're trying to find solutions," Senate President Stephen Sweeney told about 50 residents at a meeting at the Toms River Elks Lodge.
"We're trying to find solutions," Senate President Stephen Sweeney told about 50 residents at a meeting at the Toms River Elks Lodge. (KATHY JOHNSON / Asbury Park Press)
Posted: February 23, 2014

TOMS RIVER, N.J. - A day after Gov. Christie held one of his signature town-hall meetings to assure wary New Jersey residents that he was committed to Sandy recovery, the state's top elected Democrat swung through this Shore town to promote legislation he says would put the process on track.

"We know this government has failed. We're not about pointing fingers. We're trying to find solutions," Senate President Stephen Sweeney told about 50 residents at his town hall meeting at the Toms River Elks Lodge. Most in attendance are still searching for answers 16 months after Sandy made landfall.

"We can do something about it going forward. That's what we're trying to do," the Gloucester County representative said.

Residents of this Ocean County town shared tales of flooded homes, endless battles with insurance companies, frustrating interactions with state officials, and dashed dreams.

"I just need to know: Am I getting money? Am I not? When will I be receiving it?" said Therese Daidone, 54, who is living in her fourth rental home since the storm.

Daidone is among the 7,000 people on the waiting list for the $700 million Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program for homeowners.

"I need to move forward with my life," she said.

Sweeney said he would relay these stories to legislators and state recovery officials. And he pledged to improve the process for using the second round of money provided by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Christie administration is awaiting HUD approval of its plan for $1.64 billion.

Sweeney told residents that he had introduced "Sandy Bill of Rights" legislation that broadly calls for more transparency in the distribution of aid. It would allow grant applicants to track their status and determine why applications had been rejected, and guarantee fair access to benefits regardless of race or gender. The Christie administration has said race and gender are not factors in aid decisions.

But Sweeney's proposal seemed to offer little relief to those who have struggled to navigate a complex bureaucracy.

"Actions speak louder than [holding] meetings like this," said one resident.

"There is a disconnect between what the Christie administration is saying is happening, what Richard Constable is saying is happening, and what's going on the ground," said Doug Quinn of Toms River, referring to the commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, which is overseeing the recovery effort.

"Our government, which you, sir, are a part of, is failing us," Quinn told Sweeney. "Somebody really needs to raise hell over this."

Sweeney said he agreed that government had failed and added: "The first 16 months has been a disaster. That doesn't mean the next 16 months has to be."

At the governor's 110th town-hall meeting on Thursday in Port Monmouth, Christie blamed the federal government for post-Hurricane Katrina rules that he said had slowed the rebuilding.

Christie said Thursday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had declined to join a state mediation and arbitration program for insurance disputes.

While Toms River residents seemed to share disdain for the agency - some held "Stop FEMA Now" signs - they also directed criticism toward the governor, who is embroiled in a controversy over some of his aides' participation in an apparent scheme to clog traffic in September on the George Washington Bridge for political payback.

Toms River residents, however, focused on why Sandy aid had gone to development projects in less-damaged areas such as Belleville, north of Newark, and why the administration had fired two contractors without much public notice.

"If you're a political friend of Gov. Christie, you get money and you get it immediately," said George Kasimos of Toms River.

The Christie administration has bristled at those suggestions, noting that the Obama administration has said oversight of Sandy aid has been sufficient.

After the meeting, Sweeney suggested that the Legislature would call the commissioner of banking and insurance to appear before an oversight committee that has been holding hearings on the distribution of Sandy aid.

Asked by a reporter why he was touring the state even as Christie was conducting his meetings, the senator said: "We weren't looking to go to a town-hall meeting for people to tell us we're doing a good job. We actually came here to listen to people. They're angry. And they've got every right to be angry."


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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