WEST WILDWOOD — There will be a borough commissioners meeting Wednesday at 3 p.m. — the first since two appellate judges said the town, not its insurer, is on the hook for a huge jury award to police Chief Jacquelyn Ferentz.
The judges decided last month that, because the borough did not cooperate in defending against the suit as required in its agreement with the Municipal Excess Joint Insurance Fund, the insurance cooperative does not have to pay the more than $1 million award.
Taxpayers are expected to demand answers to questions about how Mayor Christopher Fox and two other commissioners handled the defense of the lawsuit.
Fox lives with Ferentz.
JIF Executive Director David Grubb said the insurer was particularly hampered by a secret agreement between Ferentz and commissioners that extensive disciplinary records against her could not be used in the case.
“We were still able to defend the town until we could not use information from that disciplinary proceeding,” said Grubb. “In 30 years at the JIF, West Wildwood was the only case where we denied coverage on this ground.”
There is also another lawsuit against the borough by former Class II police Officer Jeremy Mawhinney, of Egg Harbor City, who claims he was fired from his job for writing tickets to political allies of Fox. He also claims he was directed to target residents who may not vote for the mayor in future elections.
West Wildwood Solicitor Marcus Karavan has not responded to requests for comment, and Mayor Christopher Fox has refused to speak to The Press of Atlantic City for several weeks.
Ferentz had alleged in her lawsuit mistreatment and retaliation by former Mayor Herbert Frederick, dating to 2008 when she was a police lieutenant and the two filed charges against each other. The board of commissioners voted to fire her in 2011, after an independent hearing officer investigated, upheld a number of serious charges against Ferentz and recommended terminating her.
The 2012 election brought Fox back into office along with his political allies, and the JIF argued the new commissioners rehired Ferentz in 2012 before her case went to trial, against its recommendations. Commissioners also dropped disciplinary charges against her, made her chief and gave her a raise.
Ferentz was awarded more than $1 million by a jury, but then negotiated a payment plan over time that will result in her ultimately collecting $1.7 million from taxpayers.
Fox has been fined $24,900 in ethics violations for his behavior in that case and for other behavior while in office by the state Department of Community Affairs’ Local Finance Board.
Fox has appealed those fines.
Frederick fired Ferentz after an internal affairs investigation charged her with making false statements about the training of an officer, unauthorized use of the title of chief of police, and unauthorized absences from work, according to the appellate court decision.
Ferentz alleged the investigation was retaliation for her reporting alleged violations by Fredericks.
An independent hearing officer listened to 91 hours of testimony over 14 months and rendered a 63-page decision sustaining most of the charges against Ferentz and recommending her termination, according to the appellate judges’ summary of the case.
The tiny borough that has a budget of about $2.9 million a year is struggling to pay Ferentz $5,000 a month for 200 months and her lawyer about $18,000 a month for 42 months.
To accommodate the payments, it furloughed workers last year and has frozen salaries this year and next. It also has increased taxes, which have been somewhat offset by a decrease in school taxes, but taxpayers would have received a tax cut if not for the judgment.