WEST WILDWOOD — It wasn’t just that commissioners rehired Jacquelyn Ferentz as a police officer, dropped disciplinary charges against her and made her chief that prevented a joint insurance fund from defending the borough in her lawsuit alleging mistreatment and wrongful firing.
It was mainly a secret agreement between Ferentz and commissioners that extensive disciplinary records against her could not be used in the case, said David Grubb, executive director of the Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund.
“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.”
West Wildwood Solicitor Marcus Karavan did not respond to a request for comment, and Mayor Christopher Fox has refused to speak to The Press of Atlantic City for several weeks.
Two appellate judges on Monday said the JIF does not have to pay a more than $1 million jury award to Ferentz, because the borough did not cooperate in defending against the suit as required in its agreement with the insurance cooperative.
That leaves taxpayers to continue paying her monthly installments that will add up to about $1.7 million.
Ferentz lives with Fox.
The appellate judges upheld a 2018 decision by Superior Court Judge James Pickering that found “the borough deliberately breached the cooperation clause contained in its insurance policy. We affirm,” wrote appellate Judges Joseph Yannotti and Michael Haas.
“We have considered the borough’s contentions in light of the record and applicable legal principles and conclude they are without sufficient merit to warrant further discussion in a written opinion,” the two wrote.
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.
The commissioners also dropped charges against Ferentz that were central to the defense in the case.
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 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.
But those charges were no longer helpful to the defense at trial, and a jury awarded Ferentz about $1.1 million.
The jury award ballooned to $1.7 million after a long-term payment schedule was arranged with the tiny borough that has a budget of about $2.9 million a year.
The borough 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.