NJ agency helps residents fight City Hall

December 27, 2008 5:46:25 AM PST
Think you can't fight City Hall? A little-known service within the state Department of the Public Advocate is helping New Jersey citizens do just that.

The Office of Citizen Relations puts the muscle of the advocate's office and the expertise of its five staffers to work for residents who cannot resolve their dealings with public agencies on their own.

"Our No. 1 aim when a member of the public has a question is to get them an answer," said Public Advocate Ronald Chen. "It may not always be the answer they want; hopefully, sometimes it is."

The Office of Citizen Relations resolved problems for more than 2,000 residents who called the agency's help line last year, more than double the number seeking help in 2007, according to its director, Donna Jago.

Most commonly, the office helps people with tax-related problems such as tax bill errors and difficulty obtaining a tax rebate check, she said. It's also helped people retrieve old birth certificates or other records and obtain disabled transit after an original request was denied.

"A lot of times they're just at an impasse," Public Advocate spokeswoman Laurie Brewer said.

Such was the case with Joe and Camille D'Angelo, a Bergenfield couple who feared their home would flood with every serious storm.

With the help of the Public Advocate's office, the D'Angelos were able to get the town to replace antiquated pipes, add a storm drain and make other improvements.

"We don't have to hold our breath anymore when it rains. They truly did help us," she said of the advocate's office.

Though the Public Advocate is mainly known for pushing for eminent domain protections, elder advocacy and voters rights, it also has the ability to help people navigate government bureaucracies large and small, said Chen.

Their successes are measurable:
- Saved a North Jersey businessman more than $100,000 that the Department of Labor incorrectly said he owed in taxes.

- Helped an 80-year-old Newark woman keep her subsidized apartment after the city housing authority lost track of her payments.

- Found housing for a Middlesex County cancer patient and her children, who otherwise would have been homeless.

- Helped a Cherry Hill widow get her Homestead Rebate check, which was being withheld because it was in her late husband's name.

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On the Web:

http://www.state.nj.us/publicadvocate/citizens/help/citizens-faq.htm l

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