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Analysis: What's Wrong With Chris Christie's Government?

Delays and errors in Sandy aid, NJ Transit woes are just the latest administration failures to come under legislative scrutiny

chris christie
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Four weeks before superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey and turned him into a media superstar, Gov. Chris Christie delivered a sarcastic but little-noticed evaluation of his own administration: “Sometimes, I know it’s going to be shocking for everyone to hear, government doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to.”

Christie’s comment at a press conference in Dover on October 1, 2012, was meant to be a flip throwaway excusing the inexplicable failure of his Department of Community Affairs over an 18-month period to get $300 million in federal foreclosure aid into the hands of tens of thousands of New Jerseyans facing eviction from their homes -- in sharp contrast to 17 other states participating in the same program.

It wouldn’t happen again, Christie vowed.

Nevertheless, the same agency last month was the subject of a Senate Legislative Oversight Committee hearing into its failure to get $600 million in federal aid into the hands of homeowners who lost their homes to Sandy. The agency yet to fully explain its secret firings of two of the largest private contractors hired to administer Sandy relief programs.

Last week, an NJ Spotlight/WNYC investigation revealed that the Christie administration’s system for awarding $25 million in Sandy energy grants was so riddled with errors that it awarded large grants to towns that were unscathed by the superstorm, gave no money at all to flood-prone municipalitites like Belmar and Atlantic City, and shorted Hoboken by $700,000.

Although the report did not find conclusive evidence that the errors were a result of politics, it did serve to lend credence to Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s claim that her town was denied Sandy aid because she opposed a high-rise development that Christie wanted built -- a claim that is under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

And yesterday, the Assembly Transportation Committee held a hearing into how New Jersey Transit failed to provide enough trains and buses to transport tens of thousands of frigid Super Bowl fans, who ended their visit chanting in unison “New Jersey sucks!” The Super Bowl fiasco came just 15 months after NJ Transit lost $140 million worth of locomotives and rail cars to flood damage during Sandy because it failed to heed warnings that Sandy was a once-in-a-century storm.

“This is Management 101,” Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), the Senate oversight committee chairman, said last month in explaining the purpose of the various legislative hearings. “In each case, we’re trying to understand why the mistake happened, and what we can do to fix it to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But there’s a more interesting question that goes beyond any particular issue. We need to understand what the overall problem is with this administration. As an ex-management consultant, I find myself asking if there are too many former members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and not enough managers running these agencies.

“Does this administration put political credentials ahead of policy expertise? In an administration that rewards loyalty and punishes every sign of disloyalty, does anyone dare to give the governor bad news? Does anyone dare to tell the king what he doesn’t want to hear? And if the governor is really making every decision right down to who gets hired in individual departments in ‘red light, green light’ meetings, that’s just bad management,” he said.

Gordon is not alone is his assessment of the failings of the embattled Christie administration.

The failure of Community Affairs to expeditiously and properly process federal aid for homeowners displaced by Sandy or facing eviction and the inability of New Jersey Transit to protect trains from Sandy flooding and get fans home smoothly from the Super Bowl are part of an unprecedented series of high-profile governmental foul-ups in Christie’s first four years as governor. That’s the verdict from a series of interviews conducted over the past month with more than 20 academics, lawmakers, and Statehouse insiders from both parties who have served in high posts in state government or represent important interest groups, trade associations, or lobbying firms.

Can Christie Manage?

While the media focus has been on investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a special legislative committee into Bridgegate, the Zimmer charge, and other alleged abuses of power, government experts say that Christie’s record raises fundamental questions about the effectiveness of his management of state government overall.

“Government’s never perfect, but usually governors have one or two major foul-ups every four years -- nothing like this,” said one Statehouse insider with more than three decades inside and outside state government who, like most interviewees, agreed to talk candidly only on condition of confidentiality. The problems, they agree, are a direct result of a series of related factors:

  • Christie’s insistence that every decision go through his Governor’s Office, his failure to listen to anyone outside a small inner circle, and what analysts say is his increasing tendency to put politics ahead of policy, and national politics ahead of state politics.

  • Christie’s reliance on former prosecutors who have little administrative or policy experience to run the governor’s office and key state agencies (see "All the Governor's Prosecutors"). Unlike past governors’ appointees, they do not know the important players in Trenton or their constituencies, and as lawyers they have a tendency to clog the machinery of government.

  • The exodus from the state government starting in the previous administration of scores of senior officials who had the institutional knowledge to anticipate problems and make their agencies work, regardless of who was officially in charge.

  • A lack of transparency, tendency toward secretiveness, and failure to seek real public input that leads inevitably to mistakes and has been accompanied by a practice of stonewalling or attacking legislative or media critics when they complain.

  • Christie’s frequent refusal to allow Cabinet officers and other key officials testify at legislative hearings, which heightens distrust and leads to scores of subsequent vetoes when the governor finally reads the bills that the Legislature has approved.

Christie’s communications department did not respond to emailed questions about criticism of state government operations based on the centralization of power in the governor’s office, the high percentage of former prosecutors in high-ranking positions, and the failure of key administration officials to testify before legislative committees.

Christie’s Sandy czar has refused to appear at four legislative committee hearings, his Community Affairs commissioner did not disclose the dismissals of two top Sandy contractors, New Jersey Transit’s three top officials were dismissed or resigned before they gave explanations for the Super Bowl mass transit mishaps, and Christie himself has not held a press conference in two months because he does not want to answer questions about Bridgegate and other scandals.

Investigative Overdrive

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials and other legislative committees are investigating potential criminality, official misconduct, and ethics abuses related to Bridgegate; the alleged threat to withhold Sandy aid from Hoboken if its mayor did not support a favored high-rise development, the use of Sandy aid to build a senior citizen complex in a town unharmed by Sandy whose mayor endorsed Christie, and the takeover of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office in an apparent effort to suppress a grand jury indictment.

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