Hecklers disrupt Christie town-hall meeting in Mount Laurel

Gov. Christie turns his back on a heckler at Thursday's town hall meeting in Mount Laurel. At least five were ejected by police. Christie told one of them: "Either sit down and keep quiet or get out."
Gov. Christie turns his back on a heckler at Thursday's town hall meeting in Mount Laurel. At least five were ejected by police. Christie told one of them: "Either sit down and keep quiet or get out." (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 15, 2014

After touting a slowdown in the growth of property taxes during his administration, Gov. Christie was confronted with heckling - some of it affiliated with a liberal group - during a town-hall meeting Thursday in Mount Laurel.

Police ejected at least five people from the event at the Burlington County YMCA after they stood and shouted at the Republican governor.

To the first heckler - who continued after getting booed by the crowd - Christie paused from answering a question about education funding to say, "Either sit down and keep quiet, or get out. One or the other. We're done with you."

The governor got applause for the rebuke. He later pointed to the outbursts after criticizing what he described as a too-partisan atmosphere in Washington.

"When people are going to stand up and yell and scream . . . it shuts down debate and discussion," he said.

Christie has held several town-hall events in recent weeks, after limiting his public profile in the aftermath of revelations linking members of his administration to September's George Washington Bridge lane closures.

The town-hall meetings, which have been focused either on Hurricane Sandy recovery or Christie's recently announced budget proposal, have largely drawn friendly audiences. No one has posed the governor a question about the bridge controversy.

Thursday's meeting, by contrast, was punctuated by raucous moments, including shouts about "liars and crooks." None of the hecklers resisted as police led them from the room.

Christie, who opened the event by repeating his pitch for more pension reform, continued to field questions despite the disruption, on topics ranging from funding for Alzheimer's research to his decision not to use $7.6 million in federal money to market the new health-care insurance exchanges.

The governor said he wanted to use the money for "individualized outreach" rather than to advertise the exchanges, citing the cost of the Philadelphia and New York media markets.

"This is my bigger problem with Obamacare," he said. "What they want to do is stick us with the bill" but allow the state no decision-making authority.

In responding to a question about school funding, Christie resurrected a familiar line of attack on the state Supreme Court. He criticized rulings on the school-funding formula, which directs a larger share of aid to poor, urban districts.

The court "has decided they have not only the power of the judicial branch, but the legislative branch and executive branch, too," he said.

Near the start of the event, Christie announced that property taxes had grown 1.7 percent in 2013 - compared with an average yearly growth rate of 7 percent in the decade prior to his taking office, he said.

The 2 percent property tax cap, passed in 2010, "is working," he said.

But problematic, Christie said, is the issue of a soon-to-expire cap on raises for police and fire employees resulting from arbitration. He said he had urged Democratic leaders to extend the cap.

"There is no reason for this not to get renewed," Christie said. He added that "nothing happens in Trenton, or doesn't happen in Trenton, by accident."

Among the hecklers ejected by police Thursday was Leah Ly, 21, a senior at Rowan University, who said she wanted to speak out about the state's distribution of Sandy aid and the bridge controversy.

"I know that he won't answer my question," Ly said.

She said other Rowan students were among the hecklers. "We're going to take being heard into our own hands," she said.

At least some of the hecklers were affiliated with New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said Rob Duffey, a spokesman for the group, which was founded in 2007 in part by union organizers.

Duffey said the group also has organized protesters with signs outside the town-hall meetings Christie has held since the bridge controversy erupted.

The group is "standing with everyday New Jerseyans who don't want to let [Christie] sweep these scandals under the rug," Duffey said.

It recently filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission against David Samson, a Christie ally who is chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, alleging conflicts of interest involving his law firm.

Affordable housing advocates, who have been opposing Christie in a court battle to force the state to write new rules to jump-start low-income housing, also were present Thursday, but the governor did not call on them.

During one bout of heckling, Christie was taking a question from a man who voiced support for a possible presidential bid by the governor in 2016.

"I know you can't talk about it right now, because it's too early, but I'd like to be able to vote for you a third time," he said, adding that Washington needs "a wake-up."


mhanna@phillynews.com

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

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