FORT LEE, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie met with Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich Thursday afternoon, in the wake of a scandal in which residents of the borough were beset by traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge as apparent political payback.
Christie arrived at Fort Lee Borough Hall around 4:10 p.m. and left about 45 minutes later. He met with Sokolich, along with the mayor’s wife and teenage son, CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported.
Speaking following the meeting, Christie called it, “a very warm and productive meeting between me and the mayor.” When asked what he said, Christie added: “I apologized. That’s what I came here to do.”
Sokolich said he again accepted Christie’s apology at the meeting, and he was appreciative of the governor’s appearance even though he had earlier advised against it.
“The biggest concern is that we make sure that this never, ever, ever happens again in the future,” Sokolich said. “We were unconditionally provided with that assurance.”
As 1010 WINS’ Roger Stern reported, Sokolich learned earlier that Christie planned to arrive in Fort Lee by helicopter and land behind the local high school. But Sokolich initially asked Christie not to come on Thursday, and said such a visit was premature and would be disruptive.
He said he wished Christie would delay the trip amid inquiries by the legislature and federal prosecutors.
“Let’s face it, there’s facts that come into light each and every day, I’d rather he not waste the gas and wait a little bit,” Sokolich said. “It’s not disrespectful in any way, it’s not designed to be, I am not shunning the governor, I just think that there’s so much more going on here.”
But Sokolich later told reporters everything worked out fine.
“When I was talking to you folks, the governor was having his press conference. I had indicated that maybe it wasn’t productive to come up now. That wasn’t to be disrespectful. It was just to make more sense after the investigation concluded,” Sokolich said. “The governor insisted, and we certainly welcome our governor with open arms, as we did.”
He added that he believes Christie’s statements that he was not personally involved in the decision to close the lanes on the bridge.
“I said this once before – we in Fort Lee, we are not rooting for facts to come about and surface that he was involved in any shape or form,” Sokolich said. “We take him at his word.”
Christie said he knew nothing about emails that seem to reveal his aide wanted highway lanes near the foot of the George Washington Bridge closed because the mayor wasn’t endorsing Christie.
Sokolich said earlier that he hoped Christie would apologize again if investigations reveal additional findings.
As CBS 2’s Lou Young reported, a crowd of people in Fort Lee lined up at rumored arrival spots before Christie arrived, and crowded around the borough hall for a glimpse of Christie’s mission of contrition.
Not everyone was sold, but the governor clearly got points for making the effort, CBS 2’s Young reported.
“You got to accept his apology,” said Alan Kantorowitz of Fort Lee. “If he made an apology and he says he didn’t know, you take him at his word.”
“It’s good that he came,” added Bashi Abdell of Fort Lee, “but I think there’s more to it.”
In a nearly two-hour long press conference earlier in the day, Christie said he had “no knowledge or involvement” in what happened and sought to assure New Jerseyans the actions are not typical of the way his administration does business.
“I believe that all of the people who were affected by this conduct deserve this apology and that’s why I’m giving it to them,” Christie said. “I also need to apologize to them for my failure as the governor of this state to understand the true nature of this problem sooner than I did.”
Residents watched intently as Christie apologized earlier for the lane closures that caused hour-long backups in Fort Lee last September.
Some said they believe the governor’s apology and that he didn’t know what was happening.
“There’s no way that Gov. Christie acted in concert with this nonsense. He’s too smart to be that stupid. I personally feel that this is someone inside who thought they were doing the right thing and they were cute about it,” one man said.
“He’s not guilty, he shouldn’t apologize,” another man said.
“Do we ever buy everything they say? It doesn’t matter. You have to weigh the pros and the cons sometimes, so I’m all for Christie,” one woman said.
Others didn’t buy it.
“It can’t be possible, nothing goes through without him, he runs everything with an iron hand,” one man said.
And as CBS 2’s Sonia Moghe reported, some Fort Lee residents at a local diner said Thursday that the lane closures may have put people’s safety at risk.
Philip Kadish saw the result of the closures from his nearby high-rise apartment.
“I saw everything stopped — there really was no movement,” Kadish said, “and I heard on the news that ambulances were having a hard time getting through.”
There have been concerns that an elderly woman might still be alive had the lanes not been closed. Two doors down, neighbor Gus Jentile said Florence Genova, 91, died on Sept. 9 — the first day of the traffic nightmare.
Jentile said he does not know if the ambulance transporting her was stuck in traffic.
“If it’s so, it’s a horror story,” he said.
But Sandra Libero said she knew Genova for 55 years, and claimed Genova died in the comfort of her own home – not in an ambulance stuck in traffic.
“Chris Christie has nothing to do with that thing there,” Libero said. “She just passed away. She died at home.”
Genova’s daughter also told the New York Times she does not believe the delay on the bridge contributed to her mother’s death. She told the newspaper, “I believe it was just her time.”
Genova’s daughter also pointed out to the newspaper that her mother was a Christie voter.
Even though the closures happened more than four months ago, locals said they can still remember the effects they had on the town – even more than a mile away from the George Washington Bridge.
Gila Hellman comes over the bridge twice a week to pick up her granddaughter from school. She told Moghe she remembers the days of gridlock.
“I always was afraid that I was going to be late, late, late, late,” Hellman said.
Now, Hellman is almost an hour early.
And Kadish said the scandal almost made him turn against the governor he voted for twice. But he said Christie’s apology seemed sincere.
“I heard his apology, and I had to say it felt very from the heart,” he said.
Kadish said he is now willing to give Christie another chance.
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