PARSIPPANY – This afternoon, Gov. Chris Christie headed to the center of the storm and in his unique style, he took on all comers.
The confrontation-comfortable Sicilian-Irish governor is trending higher than Tom Brady’s hair right now, and he had several interchanges today that could turn the upward curve vertical.
His school superintendent pay cap is a hot issue in town – a few speakers spoke passionately about the issue – but it the last man in a long line of questioners that riled the governor up to the point that he called the man on stage to give him a what-for over municipal aid.
He started out the town hall meeting by reiterating again his charge to the legislature to pass his municipal toolkit.
“We started these reform town hall meetings back on Labor Day,” Chrsitie said, motioning to the “18 Days Left” poster to his right. “When I started, there were three digits to that number.”
“It’s hard,” he said of his crusade on property taxes. “And the special interests will come out and fight…That’s the fight I’m engaged in right now.”
Democratic leaders in the legislature told the press last week that they have found a compromise on one of his main toolkit items, arbitration reform.
But Christie is still skeptical. “I’m worried that they’re not showing (a bill) to me, (because I might) show my disapproval,” he said to laughter.
Christie is pressing on arbitration, civil service, and affordable housing reforms before the end of the year because mayors and town councils will be asked to abide by the new 2 percent cap in place for 2011.
Pension reform, another tool in the kit, may wait until next year – after the 18 days left in this year’s legislative calendar expires – according to indications from Christie and the Democrats.
He told the crowd the story of when he proposed the pension changes: “I went to the firefighters’ convention (in Wildwood) the week I proposed this.”
“When I entered the room,” he said, “There was significant booing.”
He told them, straight shooter to straight shooters, “Why are you booing the first guy who came in here and told you the truth?”
The pension system is doomed, he said, and it needs immediate fixes.
Christie needs the legislature to make those changes, unlike the changes he made to superintendent pay.
Christie is instituting a salary cap effective next February, but in Parsippany, the school board is suing the state to be able to extend the not-yet-expired contract of Superintendent Lee Seitz.
He told the citizens that the school board was “spend(ing) your money to sue me, to spend more of your money.”
The board already approved the contract for Seitz, but Christie is holding it hostage until the cap is in place.
When PolitickerNJ asked Christie earlier in the day what legal basis he had for doing so, he only said “stay tuned” to hear the law department make that argument in court.
Also asked at the morning presser why as head of the state does he feel the need to intervene with local officials by implementing his superintendent cap, Christie said out-of-control property taxes have forced the governor into a “de facto” role as the steward of local tax dollars.
Some of the locals at the town hall today disagreed.
A Chatham Board of Education member said the district spends less than $12,000 per student and gets wonderful results.
“You’ve taken away all of our state aid,” the woman said, and yet the state is now very interested in how the school budget is spent. “Why can’t we decide that at the local level when it’s all our money?”
She said the superintendent gets a market rate contract, but Christie said not so.
“It’s an inflated, artificial market that they (the superintendents) created themselves amongst themselves,” he told her, later laughing off the fear-inducing notion that superintendents will run to surrounding states for higher pay.
“I’ll help them pack,” he said for the umpteenth time recently.
A Parsippany teacher and local union representative tried to take Christie to task over statements he’s made about it being nearly impossible to fire bad teachers.
“There are bad politicians that I’d like to see let go,” she said.
He told her an election is always on tap for the pols, “except you don’t have to go through five years of legal fights and (thousands of dollars) in legal fees.”
The system for teacher tenure, he said, is “too expensive, it’s too onerous, and it fails.”
“What you’re doing is putting your members ahead of the children’s interests,” he charged back, recounting his request for teacher pay freezes this year – “Not to put the money back in the general fund…to avoid teacher layoffs.”
“The union’s response was, Never,” he said. “Instead the union said we will keep our raises, we will keep our free health benefits, fire our teachers…They wouldn’t even permit their members to vote.”