Senate President Steve Sweeney and Congressman Frank Pallone tried to feign non-partisanship yesterday at Sweeney’s Town Hall Meeting in Keansburg, the most recent leg on Sweeney’s Sandy Bill of Rights tour. “This is not about politics, or party,” Sweeney said as Pallone nodded “it’s about taking care of the people who need help and getting them the information they need.”
Sweeney’s bill seems to make perfect sense. It requires plain language explanations of disaster assistance programs and gives applicants the right to know where they are in the process, where they are on waiting lists, and how to appeal. The bill was cleared with amendments by the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, 4-0 with one abstention, Sen. Jennifer Beck, on Monday.
During his presentation to about 30 people, including legislative staffers, employees on non-profits working on Sandy related matters, and members of the media, Sweeney could not stay on his non-partisan, “stop the blame game and get it done” script. He chided Governor Chris Christie for blaming delays in Sandy impacted residents getting funding to rebuild their homes on the federal government..HUD and FEMA..and place the blame for the delays on the Christie administration.
“These people, our congressional delegation brought home billions of dollars,” Sweeney said with a gesture toward Pallone, “he (Christie) should not be criticizing the our congressmen, the problems are with his management.” Sweeney went on to call Christie’s Town Hall Meetings “cheer leading events.”
But the first resident to tell a Sandy horror story, and Pallone, made it clear that from the start, federal government’s response to storm victims has been fraught with misinformation that has added to residents pain.
Ed Kelly, a 53 year old music teacher from Keansburg, spoke of how he got right on rebuilding his home after the storm. “I had an insurance adjuster at my house on Halloween,” Kelly said, Halloween being two days after the storm hit in 2012. Kelly describe the speed with which he went through the building process, encouraged by representatives of FEMA at the Disaster Center who assured him he would be reimbursed by federal aid. He took out a $150,000 Small Business Administration(SBA) loan, with the assurance that it would be paid off by federal aid, and how he was later rejected for that aid. He told of appealing to the Governor’s office who pledged to help, failed, and tried to come up with a compromise that appears to not be working out. “I’m on the hook for $150,000,” Kelly said.
Pallone backed up Kelly’s story. “I was there at the Disaster Center in Highlands or Port Monmouth, where ever it was,” Pallone said (it was in Leonardo),” and heard employees of FEMA or whoever tell people to go, go go, rebuild.” Pallone raised his right hand and said, “I’ll tell the jury that is what I heard.”
Sweeney rightly expressed his outrage at the lies Kelly was told. But the Sandy Bill of Rights will nothelp Kelly and it would not have helped Kelly had it been in place when the storm hit. No state legislation is going to keep the federal government from misleading people and manipulating into being ineligible for assistance.
Pallone said he and his colleagues are trying to fix the situation for people like Kelly, and thousands of others who are caught in the labyrinth HUD and FEMA created.
I asked Pallone what was necessary to fix the problem, is legislation required or is the problem one of regulations. “I don’t think legislation is necessary,” Pallone said, “we’re trying to get them to change the rules.”
It seems to me that Pallone, Sweeney, Christie should be appealing to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and President Obama for help with the RREM program. “Let’s get done with it, stop the blame game,” as Sweeney said he wants. But if its not going to get done, if the RREM program is going to continue with inequities, incompetency, lies and more lies, let’s tell the public the truth about why it’s not getting done. That is the spirit of Sweeney’s bill.