WEST WILDWOOD – Hearings to determine if former West Wildwood Mayor Christopher Fox committed ethics violations, which captured the interest of a tiny island community, began Feb. 25.
After being charged with seven ethics violations and slapped with $24,900 in associated fines, Fox is having his appeal of the fines heard by Administrative Law Judge John S. Kennedy.
After months of delays, the hearings are being conducted via Zoom because of the pandemic.
“Before the court this morning is perhaps the biggest set of violations and penalties ever issued by the (state) Local Finance Board. It's certainly the largest I've ever come across,” said Deputy Attorney General Steven Gleeson, in his opening statement.
The case had many twists and turns and drew the attention and ire of taxpayers on the island with an area of only three-tenths of a square mile, over the Glenwood Avenue bridge, which has a year-round population under 400.
Fox was voted out in last November’s election and served the final day of his term Dec. 31, 2020.
“At its core, this is actually a relatively simple case," said Gleeson. "It’s because most of the violations here stem from a single indisputable fact: The mayor of a small town appointed himself in charge of the local police department, director of public safety, while he lived rent-free with the chief of police, in her home.”
The case originates more than a decade ago, with roots in 2008 when former Mayor Herbert “Chuck” Frederick interrupted Fox’s 12-year run and took over as mayor of the town.
“Unfortunately, like the Hatfields and McCoys, Frederick was hell-bent on terminating the employment of just about anybody in West Wildwood who Fox had any type of relationship with,” Michelle Douglass, Fox’s lawyer, told the court.
Fox later testified that Frederick fired 19 borough employees, including then-Lt. Jacquelyn Ferentz, who was living with Fox in a house she owned.
The litigation came after Frederick cleaned house, according to Fox. He testified many of Frederick’s castoffs filed lawsuits against the borough, with several ending in settlements.
A whistleblower lawsuit filed by Ferentz was pending when Fox won reelection and, again, became mayor, in 2012.
After Fox’s reelection, his administration approved a reinstatement for his housemate, Ferentz, with back pay, also giving her a promotion to police chief and a 33% raise, taking her annual salary from $67,000 to $101,000 in two years.
Fox testified in court to the details of his living arrangement with Ferentz, saying he was renting a house, which Ferentz purchased while he lived there, and she allowed him to continue to live there, without a written lease.
The house was eventually foreclosed on and Fox moved into Ferentz’s actual home, he said. He similarly had no written arrangement there, while living with her.
Fox testified he is married to his wife, Debbie Fox, and “loves her dearly,” but living together “absolutely didn’t work.” She lives in a separate home, in West Wildwood.
Fox testified he knew Ferentz since the late 90s from political events and got to know her better when she was a dispatcher in Wildwood while he was a patrolman.
While Fox was mayor, resolutions were passed which eliminated evidence that the borough’s attorneys could use in its defense against Ferentz’s lawsuit. Fox abstained from most votes related to Ferentz.
“The case by Ferentz did go to trial, and the jury did return a verdict of $1.7 million, and that's when, pardon the expression, all hell broke loose amongst people in the public,” Douglass said, in court.
The lawyer, with the firm Burnham Douglass, also represented Ferentz in the trial that secured that jury verdict against the borough.
Taxpayers were irate when the borough’s insurance carrier, the Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, refused to cover any portion of the judgment, arguing the borough did not adequately defend itself from the suit.
A Superior Court judge sided with the insurer, leaving taxpayers on the hook for $1.7 million. The borough’s budget, in 2020, was $2.9 million.
The state had witnesses verify the authenticity of various public records and memorandums before they were entered into evidence.
“They went on a digging campaign and dug up everything they could possibly dig up against Fox only,” Douglass said. “He feels that he was, in large part, scapegoated - there are no charges against any of the other commissioners - all because he took up residence with another employee. That is not an illegal act.”
After the state presented its three witnesses - Nick Bennett, who investigated the case for the Local Finance Board, and Donna Frederick, borough clerk Feb. 25; and Elaine Crowley, borough treasurer, March 5 – the state rested and Douglass called Fox as her first witness, who offered close to three and a half hours of direct testimony.
After providing some background, Douglass walked Fox through the individual charges, having him explain away each one.
Fox was served with seven notices of violation during his time as mayor, including getting involved with Department of Public Safety business, taking action to restore Ferentz to her position in the police department with back pay and benefits, taking action to fund her jury award, and voting on a salary ordinance, which allowed Ferentz to get a raise, all while living with her.
Fox was also charged with signing a shared services agreement with Wildwood, for police support, while simultaneously working as Wildwood’s administrator; voting to appoint his daughter to a volunteer position; and failing to report income or required financial disclosure forms.
Fox conceded he did not fill out the financial disclosure forms properly. He testified that he, at times, had the city clerk in West Wildwood or a secretary in Wildwood prepare the forms for him, but that he was ultimately responsible for the contents of the disclosures, which did not include his state pension or salary as mayor, for some years.
“I honestly just forgot to do that,” he said.
Fox argued against the authenticity of his signature on the shared services document, saying he would never have signed it knowing he could not sign shared services agreements between Wildwood and West Wildwood.
Fox said he was not involved in setting the salary range for the chief or her salary increases.
He testified he had nothing to do with the negotiations of Ferentz’s salary increase, he only voted on a salary ordinance that included various positions and departments.
Fox testified that Ferentz froze the borough’s bank account, using her court-ordered judgment, forcing the borough to pass the emergency appropriation he voted for to fund the payout.
He said he voted for the resolution because it was “important for me to take the lead as the mayor to do the right thing, knowing it’s the right thing, and that there is no conflict, which there is not.”
“It was our duty,” Fox said. “I was just doing my job as the mayor.”
Gleeson will get to cross-examine Fox when hearings reconvene March 11. Douglass said she will call Ferentz as her final witness.
The hearings are scheduled to continue March 12 and March 15, but Kennedy said he doubts all three remaining days would be required.
To contact Shay Roddy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.