WEST WILDWOOD — In West Wildwood, the mayor lives with the chief of the police department, which just hired his daughter. Got a problem with that?
How about the fact that the tiny borough is on the hook to pay Chief Jackie Ferentz $1.7 million stemming from a jury verdict that found the former mayor had improperly interfered with her ability to run the department?
Or that the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office placed Ferentz’s office on the so-called Brady list because it says she was untruthful during an internal investigation, a claim she denies?
Or that a former Class 2 police officer, Jeremy Mawhinney, has filed a lawsuit that depicts a department and borough rife more with favoritism and corruption than fishing boats and floods?
Welcome to business as usual in a tiny Shore town.
It’s enough to make shoobies’ heads spin as they trek over the Glenwood Avenue bridge into tiny West Wildwood, past the cartoon-mouse miniature golf course and on to their little slice of ... aggravation.
And spin their heads they have, especially after the longstanding monthly 7 p.m. Friday commissioners meeting that welcomed participation by second homeowners was abruptly switched to Wednesday afternoons — and after, in a late agenda item, Christopher Fox’s daughter Nicole was appointed to a $31,000-a-year job on the police force. (Fox, the part-time mayor cohabitating with the chief, did not vote.)
“Audible gasps” followed, according to local news reports.
“It’s just crazy,” said Susan Czwalina, who bought her 1,000-square-foot bungalow five years ago and says her taxes have gone up since then as in the borough, with just 600 year-round residents, grappled with the jury award and raised salaries. She is now treasurer of the Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood.
“It gets very personal because we love this little town," she said.
Czwalina, an accountant from Ridley Park, just wanted a cozy bungalow in a tiny throwback borough noted for its one dive bar with an iconic ceiling dart game.
Instead, she and other second-home owners have been thrust into a monstrously tangled web of feuds and nepotism, lawsuits and local privilege, rumors, gossip and some tax hikes, though not this year.
The $1.7 million jury verdict after Ferentz’s dismissal as acting chief is a huge bite for a borough whose annual budget is projected to be $2.8 million this year. Ferentz and her attorney agreed to a payment schedule: $5,000 a month for 200 months for Ferentz; $18,000 a month for 42 months for her attorney.
Typically, the town’s insurance company would cover the payout, but the Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund refused, saying the borough, with Fox as mayor, did not adequately defend itself in the lawsuit after the borough council reappointed Ferentz. (Fox did not vote.)
Part-time Mayor Fox dismisses the conspiracy theorists and parries the criticism.
He recused himself on the vote appointing his daughter to the police job. Fox says his administration has restored fiscal stability to the town. He notes the flat tax rate this year, though residents say they might have otherwise gotten a decrease.
Fox is easy enough to find. He works over the bridge at his day job as business administrator of Wildwood (where, he points out, the mayor’s son is deputy fire chief).
“I will always hire the locals first if they’re qualified,” Fox said in an interview in his office, down the hall from his boss, the Kate Smith-advocating Mayor Ernie Troiano.
“Does Philadelphia hire people’s daughters and all that?" he asked. "In this city [Wildwood], two of the mayor’s sons are in the fire department. Forget perception. Chris Fox could care less about perception.”
At this point, Fox said, the idea of consolidating West Wildwood with any of the other Wildwoods (Crest, North, City of), sounds appealing. “I’d be the first one to sign up.”
Fox and Ferentz have lived together for 17 years, since he separated from his wife, who still lives in the borough and is friends with Ferentz.
Both say they are not in a romantic relationship, though Fox occasionally refers to Ferentz as his girlfriend. At her trial, she was asked about her sexual preference and said it was no one’s business. “I sleep with my two dogs,” she said this week.
While their house-sharing strikes many as either odd or oligarchical, they say it’s not a big deal. He did not vote on her reinstatement as chief and no longer oversees public safety. She sees no conflict supervising his daughter.
But attention to their situation has gone all the way to Trenton, where Tim Cunningham, former head of the Division of Local Government Services, grilled Fox about whether he paid rent (no, but he splits bills) and said he was “shocked” at how things operated in West Wildwood. He said he would only allow the borough to float a bond to pay the jury award if it submitted to oversight. It did not.
Fox and Ferentz say the talk of the town is a false narrative.
“I was called a live-in maid at the last meeting,” Ferentz said in a telephone interview (she answered when a reporter called the police department’s main number). “I have a master’s degree.”
Fox, who was mayor from 1996 to 2008, then won re-election in 2012, says his voting constituency likes him just fine.
It’s a dynamic seen elsewhere at the Shore, where second homeowners are increasingly making their voices heard in insular towns where they pay taxes but can’t vote.
“It really got to be a heated debate when we found out we were going to have to pay a $1.7 million lawsuit,” Czwalina said.
William Kearns, a lawyer who specializes in New Jersey municipal ethics, said there is no law against nepotism, only that public officials should not vote on appointments or actions involving their immediate family. “You’re always going to find, particularly in small municipalities, families in public works, police departments for generations.”
Lisa Ryan, spokesperson for the Department of Community Affairs, says the state “is closely monitoring West Wildwood’s municipal budget and governmental conduct.”
Jeremy Mawhinney, a former Class 2 officer hired in June 2016 and terminated the following year, is suing West Wildwood in a case that’s got taxpayers nervous that the borough might be on the hook in another lawsuit. It’s scheduled to go to mediation next month.
Mawhinney says he was told that police “need to take care of the people who vote for” Fox, and that even if they were "going 90 miles an hour down Glenwood Avenue,” they should be left alone.
“This whole place is a complete scam,” Mawhinney said. “She’s on the Brady list," which requires that defense attorneys be informed if a police officer on the list is called to testify. "They took my ticket books away for two months. They flushed evidence down the toilet. If you do your job, they punish you.”
Fox, a former Wildwood police officer, says he dislikes tickets in general for moving violations, but denies any favoritism toward friends or supporters.
Unlike parking violations, he argues, those tickets offer little financial gain for the borough and needlessly aggravate people. He prefers the traffic stop and warning. He says he’s never tried to fix a ticket, but did pay a couple himself when residents complained.
Both he and Ferentz say the challenges to her role as chief of the six-member police department — and her $101,000 salary, up from $64,000 in 2014 — have been more pointed because she is the rare female in that position of authority.
The four years under the former mayor, Herbert Fredericks, were torture for her, financially and emotionally, both say, as Fredericks came after her with what they view as trumped up disciplinary charges and ultimately dismissed her. They say she deserved her job back and every penny the jury awarded her.
“I think it would be remiss if I didn’t fight for my rights,” she said. “My reputation was dragged through the mud. I can’t get that pristine reputation back.
“I’m not holding taxpayers responsible,” she added. "It’s unfortunate they have been left to hold the bag.”