West Wildwood mayor living with police chief fined $24,900 by state for violating ethics laws
The total penalty against Mayor Christopher Fox is the largest ever levied by New Jersey against an elected official.
West Wildwood Mayor Christopher Fox has downplayed the fact that he lives with the borough’s police chief, Jacqueline Ferentz, but the State of New Jersey took it seriously enough to fine him nearly $25,000 for violations of ethics laws, documents show.
The violations, issued April 11, cover actions familiar to citizens who have been complaining about unusual goings-on in the tiny borough, which is paying off a $1.7 million jury verdict to Ferentz stemming from her dismissal by a previous mayor.
The total of $24,900 in fines issued by the Local Finance Board is “the largest fine ever levied against an elected official,” said Lisa Ryan, spokesperson for the Department of Community Affairs. It covers a seven-part complaint, with each part encompassing numerous separate violations.
“However, the fine for each violation is within the prescribed $100 to $500 statutory range,” she noted. “The total penalty reflects the number of violations.” The board’s findings were in response to an anonymous complaint, she said.
The borough, which has 600 year-round residents and a $2.8 million budget, recently hired Fox’s daughter as a police officer working under Ferentz, though Fox abstained from the vote. The town is located just over the Glenwood Avenue bridge from Wildwood proper.
The violations cite numerous actions the board said violated state ethics laws prohibiting public officials from taking action to secure financial gain for themselves or any member of their immediate family.
The 21 pages of violation notices were made public Wednesday through an Open Public Records Act request made by the Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood and obtained by The Inquirer.
“For the Local Finance Board, it’s a big fine," said Jordan Rand, an attorney working with the taxpayers group, which has filed its own related complaints and asked the state to investigate what it calls a “pattern of suspected misconduct.”
But for taxpayers, who will foot the bill for the $1.7 million jury verdict, he added, “it’s a pittance.”
Although Fox says he abstained from votes directly involving Ferentz, the Local Finance Board documented numerous instances where he was involved in voting or discussing police department matters and salary increases, even the securing of an SUV for Ferentz.
Fox has the right to request an administrative hearing on the violations before they become final, according to a letter sent to him from Melanie Walter, chairperson of the Local Finance Board, a division of the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees municipalities.
Fox did not immediately return a request for comment.
He and Ferentz have said they are not romantically involved, though they have lived together for 17 years, and have maintained that there was nothing improper about the situation, including the hiring of the mayor’s daughter.
Ryan, of the Department of Community Affairs, earlier said the state was “closely monitoring” West Wildwood.
The borough is awaiting the outcome of mediation related to another lawsuit, filed by former Class 2 Officer Jeremy Mawhinney, who alleges he was improperly terminated and complained of a department rife with favoritism and corruption.
Although Fox did not vote on Ferentz’s 2012 reinstatement as police chief, the state notes that Fox’s mayoral duties at the time included serving as director of public safety and was thus directly supervising an employee “with whom he resided in a home owned and also occupied by the municipal employee.”
In that capacity, the Local Finance Board concluded, Fox was required to take actions to “implement the restoration of her position, her award of back pay and pension credit.” The board concluded those actions constituted a use or attempted use of his official position “to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages to himself” in violation of state ethics and conflict of interest laws.
It further concluded that Fox’s actions were taken in a matter in which he “had a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity.”
The state found that his serving as director of public safety might reasonably be expected to constitute a “use of his public office or employment for the purpose of securing financial gain for himself as the tenant of the municipal employee.”
As mayor, Fox voted in favor of his appointment as director of public safety, though he no longer serves in that capacity.
The state also cited 50 occasions in which, as mayor, Fox gave the police activity report at borough council meetings; was involved in 16 separate occasions in police department personnel actions; and was recorded on multiple occasions discussing agenda items involving the police department and participating on seven occasions authorizing funds for the police department, including a bond ordinance authorizing the purchase of an SUV for use by Ferentz.
It also cited an instance in which Fox arranged for his daughter to be appointed a deputy in the Office of Emergency Management and voted on the resolution authorizing the appointment.
Fox also participated in votes that increased the maximum salary of the police chief by 12.5 percent and then 33.33 percent, “constituting an act in his official capacity in a matter where he had a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement.”
The changes to the salary ordinances allowed Ferentz’s annual salary to increase from $67,000 in 2015 to $101,000 in 2017, the board noted.
Other conflicts of interests cited included Fox’s voting in favor of resolutions authorizing contracts with the law firm that would represent the borough in a legal action against the insurance fund that has refused to cover the $1.7 million jury verdict awarded to Ferentz because it contended the borough was unable to properly defend itself after rehiring Ferentz.
On Aug. 28, 2017, the state noted, Fox voted in favor of an emergency appropriation in the amount of $1.9 million to fund Ferentz’s jury award, which it said, “constituted a use or attempted use of his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself or others.”
Ferentz had sued the borough contending that she was improperly dismissed and that the former mayor interfered with her running of the department while she was acting chief.
The board also fined Fox for signing a shared services agreement between West Wildwood and the City of Wildwood, where he is employed as business administrator, and for failing to report various pensions in excess of $2,000, as required by ethics laws.
“We’re just happy that the Local Finance Board saw that there was something not right in the borough,” said Susan Czwalina, treasurer of the West Wildwood taxpayer group. She said she anticipated a large turnout at the borough’s next meeting on June 5.