WNYC News, Apr. 4, 2014
After coming under fire for a lack of transparency in how he’s handled the Sandy recovery, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has gone back to the town hall circuit in recent weeks, and members of his cabinet have been making more public appearances.
The administration has vowed to allow greater public input into its future plans. But that didn’t stop them from quietly submitting a report on hazard mitigation to the federal government last month, ahead of a publicized comment period for that very plan. The move has angered planning advocates and environmentalists, who had hoped that their expertise and feedback from the public at large would have been given greater consideration before decisions were made.
The Hazard Mitigation Plan contains New Jersey’s assessments of the risks it faces and the steps it’s taking to minimize those risks. FEMA requires the state to update its plan every three years in order to be eligible to receive disaster recovery assistance and mitigation funding, including hundreds of millions of dollars New Jersey has earmarked for buyouts of flood-damaged properties and aid to help residents elevate their homes.
When state officials released their plan early last month along with an online survey, they claimed in a news release that “This is the first time the NJ Office of Emergency Management has opened a public comment period before submitting the plan to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for approval.” But WNYC has learned that the state actually submitted its plan on March 5th, six days before the public comment period even began.
Advocacy groups that had originally been thrilled at having the opportunity to chime in are now expressing their frustrations. “They went and developed a plan on their own, just as we kind of suspected they would,” said Chuck Latini, President of the American Planning Association’s New Jersey chapter.
“We see it as really just continuing a pattern by this administration of not encouraging an honest and productive dialogue,” echoed Chris Sturm, Senior Policy Director at NJ Future, a group that promotes “responsible land use policies.”
Emergency management officials said they’re postponing all interviews until the public comment period is over. “We are trying to avoid those who wish to comment being influenced by what they are reading, or maybe refraining from commenting based on what they read or hear in the news,” a spokeswoman said in an email.
Instead, she issued a statement denying that any organizations have been “formally excluded from the planning process.” She said the state had to turn in its plan to meet a federal deadline but pledged that people’s comments will still be considered for future amendments.