WEST WILDWOOD — Second homeowners make up about 65% of the borough’s population, but they cannot vote here without giving up voting rights at their primary homes.
So they get no say in how the borough is run.
It’s got some of them hopping mad, looking for a way to stop what they see as abuses by Mayor Christopher Fox.
“You can’t like it,” said second homeowner and part-time resident Frank Bavis, who is ineligible to vote here because his main residence is in Philadelphia. “It’s almost like they are taking advantage of their authority.”
Fox was recently fined $24,900 by the state Division of Community Affairs’ Local Finance Board for a long list of ethics violations, including allegedly favoring his girlfriend, who was promoted to police chief and given a big raise while he headed up the Public Safety Department.
Police Chief Jacqueline Ferentz also won a $1.7 million judgment against the borough after alleging mistreatment under a different mayor. The case went to trial while Fox was in office, and the Joint Insurance Fund has refused to pay the judgment, saying the borough did not adequately defend itself in the case.
Fox, who was recently terminated from his job as Wildwood business administrator over the damage the negative publicity was doing to that town, could not be reached for comment.
The controversy over the mayor, and the resulting bad publicity, can’t help but harm the borough’s image, said Russ Rohrman, who has been a full-time resident for 10 years and is on the Planning Board and involved in other community groups.
“We love the town,” said Rohrman.
“We don’t love the politics,” said his wife, Chris Rohrman.
“Oh my God, it’s like ‘Peyton Place,’” said Mary Ellen Zajac of the goings-on involving the mayor, his housemate the police chief, his daughter the newly hired officer and the lawsuits that have enriched the chief and some locals at the expense of others.
Zajac was a part-time resident for decades before retiring here full-time three years ago. She said she never paid much attention to how the borough was run when she couldn’t vote.
“People feel like their hands are tied,” said Zajac of her neighbors who are still part-time residents and can’t vote. “They can’t do anything about it.”
What finally got her attention, and the attention of so many others in town, she said, was the amount of money taxpayers have to hand over to the chief.
They are paying off the $1.7 million judgment in monthly installments of $5,000 a month for 200 months to Ferentz and $18,000 a month for 42 months to her attorney.
People are worried about how the tiny community of fewer than 900 homes can finance such expenditures without big tax increases. So far, the increase in municipal taxes needed to cover the monthly payments has been offset by falling school taxes, because there are so few children living here.
The school tax savings will end soon, the school board administrator has warned.
And Ferentz can call in the balance at any time, so if the mayor is voted out, many in town fear she will demand the full amount and local property taxes will go up dramatically.
Some are afraid that fact, plus Fox’s alleged favors to his local friends, will result in his continuing to get re-elected.
“They are going to keep voting him in,” said Bavis.
Former Class II Officer Jeremy Mawhinney, of Egg Harbor City, has filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired from his job in 2017 for writing tickets to political allies of Fox.
Mawhinney said in the suit he was told several times by his sergeant, James Dodd, and Chief Jackie Ferentz not to write tickets to Fox’s allies, regardless of whether they were breaking the law.
Mark Merighan, of Philadelphia, said he considered selling his vacation home and buying in North Wildwood to escape the possibility of big tax increases to pay off Ferentz.
But he decided not to let Fox chase him out of town, he said.
“The summer residents get nothing out of it,” he said of having to pay taxes without being able to vote.
Full-time residents can vote, but they question whether anyone will step up to run against Fox, who has been in office since the 1990s, except for the four years Herbert Frederick was mayor from 2008 to 2012.
They are also upset that the value of their homes and the reputation of the borough is being affected.
Bavis is a member of the Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood, and said the group has helped people get involved, even if they cannot vote here.
Some have retired and taken up permanent residency here to be able to vote, he said. And the group is looking into what it would take to change the law to allow second homeowners to vote in local elections, he said.
Delaware, Connecticut and New Mexico have changed their laws to allow second homeowners to vote in local elections, and a total of 10 states allow second homeowners to vote in some special elections like for fire districts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
NCSL Policy Specialist Dylan Lynch said the issue is quiet now, with no serious push by New Jersey or other states to increase voting rights for second homeowners.
Others here just want to stay clear of political involvement.
Donna Howard has lived here full time since 1998, and considers many local officials her friends.
“When I go to Borough Hall with a problem, they always help me out. They’re always very nice,” said Howard. “I wouldn’t live anyplace else.”
But many people liked the idea of allowing vacation homeowners to vote locally.
The Rohrmans said giving second homeowners the right to vote would get more residents involved in helping run the town.
“It’s better when more people are involved,” said Russ.