MIDDLETOWN, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Gov. Chris Christie heard complaints from residents still displaced by Superstorm Sandy Thursday at his first town hall meeting since a political payback scandal engulfed his administration.
The 500 or so constituents who attended Thursday’s town hall in Monmouth County had Sandy recovery on their minds. The topic gave Christie a little breathing room to court the crowd in the kind of forum that helped cement his first-term popularity.
“I still spend every week, about 40 percent of my personal time, on Sandy,” Christie said.
Christie began by blaming Congress for being too slow to approve a multibillion-dollar aid package after New Jersey suffered the worst natural disaster in its history.
He also said the allocation could fall $20 billion short of the state’s rebuilding needs.
“We have auditors and monitors and the comptroller and everybody in the world looking over our shoulder,” Christie said. “We’ll end up spending as much money on the auditing as we spend on getting help to victims if we do that.”
The first question was asked by a resident from Brick, who said she is still on a waiting list for help after her home was destroyed by Sandy.
“I’m just Debbie from Brick and I just want to go home,” she told the governor.
“I want you to go home,” Christie responded. “But the fact is that if the check book was purely at my disposal and I could review your papers personally and not have the federal government involved, you’d probably be home already.”
When a resident complained about a paltry flood-insurance reimbursement, he had harsh words for the federal program.
“The entire flood insurance business in this country has been taken over by the federal government,” he said.
When another woman told him her mother died Saturday while still in a rental house, he said the deceased woman would want him to take care of the survivors.
And when he called on a 3-year-old who told him, “my house is still broken,” he called her closer and promised that someone from his administration would see about helping her mom. Then they high-fived.
“We’re going to try to see if we can help you get your home fixed,” he told her.
Little Nicole Brier has been living in a crammed RV with her mother. It sits next to their home in Leonardo, N.J., which is still damaged by Sandy.
“When she asked him to fix our broken house, I was shocked and I just started to cry because that’s nothing a 3-year-old should ever have to think about,” Kelly Brier told CBS 2’s Christine Sloan following the town hall.
Brier said she hasn’t gotten government grant money to raise their house.
“Winter is really the worst time because the pipes freeze, the water lines freeze,” she told Sloan.
Brier said she doesn’t know who to blame for the holdup: the federal government or the Christie administration.
Christie was seen as a leader after the storm and his popularity soared as the state began recovering from the disaster that caused an estimated $37 billion in damages to the state.
But recently, residents and public advocates have become openly critical of the slow pace and confusing way it is distributing the first $1.8 billion in aid.
Thursday’s meeting did have some adversarial moments.
When asked why the administration quietly ended a $68 million contract with its Sandy aid contractor, Hammerman & Gainer Inc., Christie was heckled with calls of “answer the question.”
He then defended the decision to put the administration of storm recovery programs in private hands, but he did not say what led to the Louisiana firm’s termination.
“I just disagree with you,” he told the resident who argued that existing government employees should be administering the program.
“The alternative is to have hired thousands of additional government employees to be able to administer this program. Who was gonna administer it?” the governor said.
Christie also said despite the questions raised about privatization, New York has been much slower than New Jersey when it comes to handing out Sandy recovery money.
The town hall attendees told Sloan they were not hand-picked to attend, and there were some angry residents in the crowd.
At one point, a woman sitting in the audience was seen holding up a sign that read, “Resign Christie.”
Keansburg resident Isabel Newson claims police tried to take her sign away.
“I would like him to resign, I don’t think he’s fit to sit in office anymore,” Newson told Sloan.
A spokesperson for the governor said generally, political signs are not allowed in town hall meeting but that when the woman made her case that it was a first amendment issue, they gave it back to her.
Outside, there was a smattering of protesters. One, Democrat Marilyn Tuohy waved a hand-written sign proclaiming that Christie cared only about himself, not storm victims.
The administration also is enmeshed in allegations that it leveraged storm recovery funds to win approval for a favored development project or to reward political loyalty.
The governor’s office has denied all charges.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Port Authority publicly apologized Wednesday for the traffic jams at the center of the scandal, which created hours-long traffic backups in Fort Lee in September.
Port Authority Chair David Samson said the authority is “deeply sorry for the inconvenience caused to our travelers.”
“I cannot allow this agency to be mischaracterized by the actions of a few individuals,” he said.
Samson is part of a new oversight committee whose goal is to increase transparency at the Port Authority in the midst of a barrage of criticism. He promised a full accounting of the closures last fall.
In all, five people close to Christie have been fired or resigned, and federal authorities are conducting a criminal investigation separate from the lawmakers’ civil probe.
The scandal broke open last month with the release of subpoenaed emails showing the involvement of Christie loyalists in the lane closures, possibly as a political payback against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie for re-election.
Christie has denied knowledge of the planning or execution of the lane closings.
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