WEST WILDWOOD — Commissioners said they were acting on the advice of their solicitor when they made a pact with Police Chief Jackie Ferentz not to use extensive disciplinary records against her in defending a lawsuit she brought alleging wrongful firing.
Ferentz lives with Mayor Christopher Fox, who called the disciplinary charges against Ferentz brought by a previous mayor "ridiculous."
Current commissioners — and Cornelius Maxwell, who recently resigned — also rehired Ferentz, gave her full back pay and pension credit, promoted her to chief and gave her a substantial raise.
“At the time we followed our attorney’s advice, to put the borough in the least liable state for anything,” Commissioner Scott Golden said to disbelieving guffaws from the packed audience of taxpayers still paying off a $1.7 million judgment to Ferentz.
“Hindsight being 20/20, we are stuck with what we got, and that’s where we’re at,” Golden said.
But resident Mary Ann Welsh said court documents paint a different picture. She read from Superior Court Judge James Pickering’s 2018 decision that the borough’s insurer did not have to pay the judgment, since the borough did not cooperate in its own defense.
That decision was recently affirmed by a two-judge appellate panel.
The judge quoted Solicitor Mary Bittner as saying she told the commissioners the actions they were undertaking would have potential adverse consequences to the borough.
“I presented several options to the commissioners on how to handle the issue without compromising the CEPA (Conscientious Employee Protection Act) claim,” Bittner is quoted by the judge as saying.
Bittner advised them they were risking loss of insurance coverage, Welsh said.
“I did not sign off on this,” said Fox, who said he recused himself. “But I will tell you this … the charges (against Ferentz) were the most ridiculous I’ve ever heard.”
That got a loud response from residents, who hollered, “In your opinion!” and exclamations of disbelief.
“I believe you are delusional,” Welsh said.
“I feel the same about you,” answered Fox, and things only got worse from there.
Fox said the charges against Ferentz, although reviewed by an independent hearing officer and upheld, would not have held up in court and the borough would risk having to also pay a punitive award to Ferentz.
“Why did you feel it necessary to take evidence out if you were so sure she’d win?” asked resident Dan Giffear. “You should put all the chips out there and let the jury see what it is.”
“This was a (expletive) scam,” said resident Mark Meighan. “They ripped us off. They stole from us.”
Meighan went on to tell the commissioners he’d “take both your asses outside” if he was younger and more in shape.
“And you’d lose,” said Fox. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
Other residents asked for Fox and Golden to resign so the borough can heal from all of the anger and anxiety, or asked them to pay the judgment themselves.
At each request the crowd broke into applause.
Fox repeatedly said he would not resign, and that most people in town support him.
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 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.
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 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 borough’s insurance fund argued the new commissioners rehired Ferentz in 2012 before her case went to trial, against its recommendations.
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.