Sweeney introduces Sandy 'Bill of Rights'

Citing problems with the delivery of aid to Hurricane Sandy victims, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) on Thursday introduced a “Sandy Bill of Rights,” setting standards for the treatment of applicants seeking relief money.

The legislation isn’t yet posted online, but The Inquirer obtained a copy. It says storm victims — including individuals, businesses, and communities — have experienced “unreasonable inconveniences and unfair treatment” while applying for Sandy aid.

“These problems have arisen in the form of unclear application and appeals processes, difficulties in obtaining the status of applications, rejections without any reasoning offered, waiting lists provided without any clear order … and an overall lack of transparency and refusals to respond to requests” under the Open Public Records Act.

The bill lists 10 “rights,” including the ability to track the status of applications (through the Internet or a counselor or by phone); the ability to know why an application was rejected, and fair access to benefits regardless of race or ethnicity.

The Fair Share Housing Center, an advocacy group in Cherry Hill, has said data it obtained shows African-Americans and Latinos have been denied aid at higher rates than white applicants.

The Christie administration’s handling of federal Sandy relief money has drawn added scrutiny in recent weeks, including allegations top officials tied funding to the approval of a private redevelopment deal in Hoboken. Aides have denied those claims.

Last week, it was revealed that the state had terminated a $68 million contract with Hammerman and Gainer, a Louisiana firm hired to manage recovery programs. Officials did not provide an explanation for the termination or say who would take over the work, saying only that Sandy recovery centers had continued to operate without interruption.

On Thursday, a Christie spokesman did not comment on Sweeney’s bill but pointed to remarks by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan during an appearance on MSNBC Wednesday.

Sandy money “is moving faster than in any prior major disaster,” Donovan said. He said he was “confident that we are monitoring this money closely.”

Sweeney has been championing the need for a Sandy bill of rights, calling it a priority during the recent legislative reorganization.