Even though I have met the mayor many times over the years, this was the first time I sat down with him one-on-one for an interview. The mayor and I had a candid and broad ranging conversation covering many topics, all while his phone was ringing, email pinging and visitors lining up at his door. To put it mildly, the mayor is in constant demand to address municipal, private practice and personal issues throughout the day. The mayor tries to give everyone his attention even if for a brief moment.
Mark Sokolich was born and raised in Fort Lee, and in a very real way, by the Fort Lee community. The mayor tragically lost his father at age 12 and his mother a short time later at age 13.
He said, “Fort Lee treated me like a surrogate son.”
If he stepped out of line, a friend’s parent or a neighbor would step in to set him straight. It is this unique historical relationship with the community that fuels his commitment to public service. He said that for him, it has been “a long term love affair with the people of Fort Lee.”
Mayor Sokolich moved forward with his life and attended Fort Lee High School, which he describes as “great and memorable years of his life.” At Fort Lee High School, he was an All-State basketball player and an All-County standout in baseball. Prior to graduation, and prior to accepting one of the scholarship offers he collected, he broke his ankle and those offers evaporated. He graduated in 1981, and in an effort to overcome another obstacle, he enrolled at Rutgers University and tried out as a walk-on for the basketball team. He made the team and became a full scholarship player for the Scarlet Knights.
After graduating from Rutgers, he earned a law degree from Seton Hall University and entered the workforce. After working at a few law firms, the mayor formed his current firm, Sokolich & Macri, in 1998, where he is the managing partner.
He then sought elective office and spent about four years as a Councilman before running for mayor after the untimely death of former Mayor Jack Alter.
The first month at the helm “was scary,” the Mayor said.
“There is no procedures manual to walk you through the job,” he said.
He adjusted to the position by dealing with one issue at a time and one crisis at a time and became more confident in his abilities to resolve various issues.
In the rough and tumble world of Fort Lee politics, the mayor stated that he has made a concerted effort to transcend partisanship in his executive appointments. Even though the Mayor and Council are in the hands of Democrats, he emphasizes that his appointments to boards and committees have been almost 50 percent Republicans and Independents. The mayor seeks to appoint candidates that are “the best people for the position, regardless of politics,” and insists that his appointees “are as accessible to the public as the mayor.”
He starts his day at about 5:30 a.m. by listening to the Beatles. His iPod also includes Coldplay and the Italian singer Zucchero. Between his municipal duties and his private practice, the mayor regularly puts in 50-hour weeks, and if a crisis arises, such as a severe weather event, a disaster or a tragedy involving a member of the community, he keeps going until the problem is dealt with.
He loves being the mayor, but there are drawbacks to the position. The mayor readily admits that his personal life and business have suffered due to the demands of public office. He wishes he would have more family time with his wife and two sons. He said at some point, with the growth and demands of a town such as Fort Lee, the position of a full-time mayor should be considered.
On the positive side, the mayor believes that Fort Lee is in a strong position, and its best days are yet to come. Fort Lee has high bond ratings, and the Mayor and Council have tried to reign in spending, including eliminating approximately 40 employee positions through attrition. Also, programs such as the ambulance co-pay program, brings in about $1 million in gross revenue.
The mayor said, “Fort Lee has a strong fiscal foundation.”
On the topic of development, the mayor said it is difficult to balance commercial and residential development with the impact on the community at large. However, he believes that the Area 5 development goes a long way in meeting the community needs with a proposed large park, movie theater and museum. This project is expected to begin construction in the summer of 2012.
The topic of the public schools followed. The mayor has come out publicly in support of the bond referendum, along with Council members, scheduled for January 24, 2012. This referendum will address mostly infrastructure repairs of all schools in Fort Lee. The Mayor said that everyone in Fort Lee should support investing in the school system to “attract affluent, respectable and law abiding citizens to the community.”
The mayor pointed to the Blue Ribbon designation of School No. 3 and how it raised property values in that district. However, he said that an isolated accomplishment should not lull people into complacency. All schools in Fort Lee need the facilities and support to become high performing schools. He continued that the “sure fire wrong thing to do,” would be to neglect the urgently needed repairs in the schools.
We also discussed what makes Fort Lee unique from other Bergen County towns, and our diversity is a major factor. The mayor sees the diversity of our community as a real strength but also one that presents challenges. Each group wants to have a say and be heard “as they should,” he said. The mayor makes a concerted effort to make various boards and committees reflective of the community at large and cites the Sign & Façade Committee as a perfect example.
The mayor summed things up by saying that in the course of his travels, he regularly hears that Fort Lee is the envy of Bergen County. The mayor emphatically states that “we have the best emergency services, top youth sports programs, and in particular, we have a stellar special projects team and Department of Public Works."
He went on to elaborate that the DPW has some of the most talented people in the State of New Jersey with the ability to do major projects in-house, with no outside contractors, thus making it possible to handle these projects in a fiscally responsible way.
In closing, whether you agree with his policies or not, it is hard to argue against the fact that our mayor dedicates a substantial amount of his time and energy to serving the needs of his constituents, regardless of political affiliation.