BY ADELE SAMMARCO
Governor Chris Christie has hopped the re-election campaign plane to the west coast to attend four fundraisers in three days this week.
Among the Governor’s campaign stops, a meeting with social media titan, Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook fame in California.
In his absence, Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno will be filling in, reminding voters of the $1.8 billion federal aid being funneled into the shore’s hardest hit towns. The Christie administration calls it “Show your Love for the Jersey Shore” and “Open for Business”, two new initiatives which highlight small businesses that have re-opened since Superstorm Sandy hit October 29th and the consequent rebuilding efforts underway along the tattered coastline. Guadagno made two stops Monday to tour the rebuilding of the Point Pleasant boardwalk and hard hit Sea Bright.
As a budget battle brews between the Republican Governor and Democratic-controlled state Legislature, Christie insiders say he plans to use Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts to lay out his priorities and may already be targeting specific programs for cuts in order to balance the budget in case state revenue continues to lag behind predictions.
In the meantime, the Governor is defending a $100 million contract his administration awarded a Florida company to haul away debris created by the Superstorm. Critics charge impropriety, but Christie staunchly denied any wrongdoing, citing the contract with AshBritt was not awarded without competitive bidding as those same critics have charged.
The Governor says the state has a cooperative agreement with Connecticut which allows it to piggyback off an earlier contract with that state. Christie says Connecticut contracted with AshBritt three years ago in a $100 million deal that was competitively bid.
After Sandy ripped through the shore, Christie said the state needed to hire a contractor quickly to begin cleaning tons of debris left behind by the storm. The Governor said AshBritt was selected because the firm had experience in dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and was able to get full reimbursement.
In the wake of the criticism, Christie says he is now putting in place important initiatives and safeguards for the public to ensure the integrity of the federal spending process to acquire accountability and transparency, just to make sure there are no government abuses.
“First, I’m authorizing the state comptroller to conduct an independent review of the contract procurement process for Sandy-related federal reconstruction funding administered by the state. Second, it establishes accountability officers in each department of state government that touches on reconstruction and Sandy-related spending. Third, it orders the creation of a state website for the public display of Sandy-contracting information and the expenditure of these federal recovery funds.” said Christie.
Since Christie has pledged to beef up oversight of the funds, some of which will be paid to contractors, he has asked the non-partisan state comptroller’s office to help establish this protocol and plans to work with Democratic lawmakers who introduced a bill to create integrity monitors to oversee the federal funding.
Christie said, “We want everybody to see where the money is going, that’s to our advantage. Working with the comptroller and if we decide to put other safeguards in place in cooperation with the Legislature, that will all be good for the people of this state.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney,(D-Gloucester), meantime, has asked the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee to review the state’s contract with AshBritt. Sweeney wants the committee to review the state’s lobbying law, which applies to interactions between state elected officials and lobbyists, however it does not govern local officials, where most of the lobbying is occurring.