WEST WILDWOOD - A new year brought a new era in West Wildwood. Matthew Ksiazek Jan. 1 was sworn in as mayor.
John Banning will be the commissioner in charge of public safety, and Joseph Segrest will head revenue and finance.
Ksiazek will oversee public works and parks departments, in addition to becoming the town’s first new mayor since Herbert “Chuck” Frederick took office, in 2008. Former Mayor Christopher Fox served from 1996-2008 and was reelected in 2012.
“I would like the people to know that we are here to work for them,” Ksiazek said, in an interview with the Herald. “The three of us took the position because we wanted to work for the community and be the stewards of their tax money. That’s what our jobs are.”
In November’s hotly contested race, Ksiazek, Banning, and Segrest defeated the incumbent commissioners, led by Fox, by an average of 35 votes each. That is a misleadingly narrow margin, however, in the small town of West Wildwood, where only 1,071 total votes were cast. The new team received an average of 55% of the vote.
The New Year’s Day reorganization meeting drew mostly supporters of the new officials. However, Ksiazek understands that not everyone in town will be happy.
“A large number of the community still did vote for the other side,” he acknowledged. “I do expect a little bit of resistance from them, which, I think, is probably normal in any case after an election.”
Ksiazek said he hopes for more seemliness and sees transparency as the key to avoiding contentious exchanges during public meetings, which seemed to become routine of late.
“Do I expect anyone to be unfair? I hope not. I am going to avoid some of the rhetoric and general decorum in the meetings that were in the past. If we conduct our meetings, and more importantly our business, open and transparent, which we ran on, it should help eliminate some of that contention in meetings, where questions weren’t answered and people weren’t getting the answers they were looking for,” Ksiazek explained.
Much of the divide, in West Wildwood, had to do with accusations the former administration acted selfishly and not in the community’s interest.
After Fox was reelected, in 2012, commissioners reinstated Jacquelyn Ferentz, a police officer who lives with Fox and was fired under a previous administration, which unseated Fox, in 2008.
Then-Commissioners Scott Golden and Cornelius Maxwell voted to promote her to chief, with Fox abstaining. A recent lawsuit alleges they conspired to let Ferentz win a whistleblower trial against the borough (http://bit.ly/3rZXDzt).
A judge ruled that the insurer for the borough should not have to pay the $1.76 million jury verdict since the borough did not adequately defend itself at trial, putting a financial burden on taxpayers (http://bit.ly/2MBTBNr).
Fox is facing $24,900 in fines for alleged ethics violations, which he is appealing in court (http://bit.ly/3ba3n3I).
Before leaving office, Commissioners Golden and Amy Korobellis, who replaced Maxwell after he resigned, in 2019, voted for new contracts with the police chief and the union representing the department’s officers. Fox abstained from both votes.
The chief’s new contract included a term to accelerate her monthly payments to satisfy the verdict by $17,000 a month, in September 2021, (http://bit.ly/2LsDz7U). She was receiving just over $5,000 monthly. Incoming commissioners said the contracts were done in bad faith.
Ksiazek said he values the police department and will leave contract issues to the public safety commissioner (Banning) to handle.
“I like having our police department. I think it's a great asset to our community. I would hope that we can have a very good working relationship,” the new mayor said.
Ksiazek thinks the almighty dollar will be his administration’s biggest challenge.
“Our biggest challenge is going to be the budget and trying to balance it out, and, of course, the past judgments, which are a financial burden,” he said. A temporary budget was approved at the Jan. 1 meeting.
The new commissioners also made hiring a new solicitor one of their first orders of business. Mary D’Arcy Bittner, who once told the Herald there is no politician she'd rather work for than Fox, agreed to be a full-time lawyer for the borough, in January 2020. She resigned on her own, according to the new mayor.
She will be replaced by Matthew Lyons, who will not come on as a full-time employee, rather via a professional services contract with his firm, Gebhardt and Kiefer.
Lyons served as mayor of Washington Township for two years before resigning in 2011 due to a potential ethical conflict after he was appointed lead counsel for Gloucester County, where Washington Township is located, NJ.com reported.
Beyond that move, Ksiazek does not foresee any personnel changes. “I really trust and like our office staff. All our employees. I’m very comfortable with all of them,” he said.
After day one in the office Jan. 4, Ksiazek thinks the staff might like the new team, too.
“There was a sense of relief,” he said. “The dramatic publicity for the town, I feel like, created a little bit of extra work for them, so I think they seemed relieved for a fresh start and a new start for the town.”
Ksiazek is an electrician and civil and environmental engineer, according to campaign material, raised his daughter in the borough, and served on West Wildwood Planning Board.
Segrest,a retired Lockheed Martin engineer,lived in West Wildwood full-time after retirement, the material states. He has experience as a trustee and treasurer with South Jersey fire departments, according to his biography.
Banning is the retired chief of the Haddonfield Police Department.
Ksiazek said although he has always been politically active, he never thought he would hold public office.
“I made the decision to run politics in this town because this is my home, and I really care. It was in the right place at the right time. I felt like the town needed some people who truly cared and were willing to work hard,” he said.
To contact Shay Roddy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.