The Christie administration doesn't make many public-relations gaffes. But it is making a big one now by failing to hand over public documents about the guidelines used for distributing $850 million in federal grants for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
The Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center, which filed an initial request under the Open Public Records Act on July 31, is now suing the state to get the information released.
The group is asking for all records regarding the processing of applications, the appeals process and the demographics, numbers and locations of those who have received money or been denied assistance.
The request covers three programs: the Homeowner Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program; the Homeowner Resettlement Program; and the Fund for Rehabilitation of Small Rental Properties.
The $850 million available under these three programs accounts for almost half of the initial $1.8 billion federal Community Development Block Grant for Sandy victims.
When the three grant programs for the nine most damaged counties were announced, the state said the applications would be prioritized according to the degree of damage and income level. But the Fair Share Housing Center says in its complaint that there are "widespread problems among lower-income families and communities accessing these funds" and that it gets requests for assistance almost daily but cannot offer much help because it does not have the guidelines the administration is using.
The Christie administration promised unprecedented transparency in the distribution of Sandy aid - so why not just release the information the Fair Share Housing Center is seeking?
After receiving the initial OPRA request, the state asked for a 30-day extension - then failed to provide the documents at the end of that extension. It has since asked for another 10-day extension, which triggered the lawsuit.
This is outrageous. The information requested is clearly public information. The Fair Share Housing Center - and anyone seeking the grants or anyone else trying to help people get the money - need to know what the guidelines are.
And release of the demographic data on who has received grants and who hasn't is critical for evaluating how well the administration is living up to its pledge to prioritize the grants based on damage and income.
Look, we understand. Whenever the government hands out money, not everyone qualifies, not everyone gets what they want.
But the basis for those decisions must be clear to everyone.