WEST WILDWOOD - Much of the public comment period at West Wildwood’s Commission meeting Jan. 8 centered on Mayor Christopher Fox’s decision to hire Mary D’Arcy Bittner to be an in-house solicitor for the borough, a job which was previously outsourced by hiring private attorneys.
“I didn’t expect this level of animosity,” said Bittner.
The mayor’s decision to hire Bittner, who resigned from her job of six years, as Wildwood’s solicitor, when her contract expired Dec. 31, drew questions from the public.
“I’ve got to take issue with ‘animosity,’ because we don’t have that. All we’re trying to find is information about you,” said Charles Chepek, a director of Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood (CTWWW), a not-for-profit group community group. “That’s information that we deserve as citizens of a community.”
During public comment, which lasted over one hour and 45 minutes, taxpayers questioned Bittner’s record, asking why she was to be trusted after Commissioner Scott Golden previously cited her legal advice as a reason why the commissioners made the decision to go to trial against then Lt. Jacquelyn Ferentz, who was suspended from the police force by former mayor Herbert Frederick, and sued the borough in 2012.
The commissioners reinstated Ferentz, now chief of police, who has lived with Mayor Fox for many years. Fox is married, but his wife lives separately.
These decisions culminated in the borough having to pay the judgment out of its budget, when its insurer argued it violated the terms of their agreement.
Bittner called Ferentz’s suspension wrongful and “based upon politically motivated charges.”
“When bringing the chief (Ferentz) back, Commissioner (Cornelius) Maxwell and Commissioner Golden made every possible effort to settle her civil claims against the borough; however, the municipal joint insurance fund only authorized $35,000 in settlement funds, which made settlement impossible, and the case went to a jury,” stated Bittner in an email to the Herald. Bittner said bringing Ferentz back was “the right thing.”
Fox abstained from the 2-0 vote to reinstate Ferentz. Fox did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The Joint Insurance Fund (JIF), the borough’s insurer for these types of lawsuits, would have taken care of the seven-figure judgement; instead, JIF evoked a “cooperation clause,” which ensures the borough is committed to fighting the case, arguing that the borough did not adequately defend itself, according to an Appellate Court decision.
The $1.7 million judgment to Ferentz is paid in monthly increments of $5,000 by the borough, which has a total budget of under $3 million, according to published reports.
Taxpayers also questioned why they should have to foot the bill for a permanent lawyer who would advise commissioners, but not taxpayers, on legal matters. The mayor responded, saying solicitors are common in municipalities everywhere.
Taxpayers questioned if there were examples of a borough West Wildwood’s size that has in-house counsel. The mayor did not immediately provide examples.
Bittner said benefits to having in-house counsel include being able to budget legal costs, pre-empting things that could lead to future legal liability and reducing conflicts of interest.
Taxpayers took issue with the process of hiring Bittner, which they said lacked transparency.
The hiring process did not include interviewing any other candidates or posting a public notice of the job opening, admitted Fox. Bittner has what Fox described as “a friendship” with him, and has represented him as counsel in prior legal matters. The mayor said they have been friends for over 20 years.
Bittner reaffirmed her admiration for Fox, with whom she worked closely in Wildwood while she was solicitor there. “There is no politician I would rather work for,” said Bittner, referring to Fox. “I love this community, and I’m excited about the job.”
Fox was Wildwood's administrator before Wildwood Commissioners fired him after he refused to resign in May, following allegations of ethics violations by the state.
Wildwood decided to terminate Fox after the New Jersey Local Finance Board fined Fox $24,900 – the most ever against an elected official, per media reports. According to reports, the fines related to Fox’s actions regarding the Ferentz case and to Fox’s hiring his daughter, Nicole Fox, as a West Wildwood police officer under Ferentz.
Fox is appealing the fines and refuses to resign as West Wildwood mayor. He received $25,000 in severance from Wildwood.
Wildwood Mayor Peter Byron, one of the three commissioners at the time, told the Herald, “I wish Mary Bittner the best. I’d rather not circle back on her six-year legacy here in Wildwood.”
As solicitor for West Wildwood, Bittner will earn $60,000 a year, plus full benefits, putting her total package at $75,000 per year, Fox said at the meeting. That money would come from the vacated West Wildwood administrator position. Christopher Ridings, who resigned as administrator in June, will not be replaced.
Ridings was appointed deputy office of emergency management coordinator at the Jan. 8 meeting, which is a volunteer position, according to Fox. Ridings is a former deputy police chief in Mount Laurel.
Bittner, a Ridgewood native, has degrees from Rutgers University and Fordham School of Law. She spent more than a decade in private practice before becoming Wildwood solicitor in 2013.
Bittner said she would not maintain private practice or accept other work while on the West Wildwood payroll.