WEST WILDWOOD — At the first Borough Commission meeting since Mayor Chris Fox’s $24,900 in state ethics fines became public and he lost his job as administrator in a nearby town, borough officials announced Commissioner Cornelius Maxwell had resigned.
“Two more to go,” said a voice in the audience, which had broken out in applause.
Fox also said he had appealed the ethics charges, which he called “ridiculous” and “a joke,” with the state Department of Community Affairs Local Finance Board, and predicted he would be exonerated.
If the appeal fails, he will pay the fines and change the way he does things, but if not he will continue what he has been doing, Fox said.
The resignation leaves only Fox and Commissioner Scott Golden on the governing body. Neither could answer questions at the meeting about the process of replacing Maxwell, who cited personal, family reasons for resigning, according to township officials.
Maxwell could not be reached for comment.
Borough Clerk Donna Frederick said Thursday officials are “still working through matters." County Clerk Rita Marie Fulginiti said she has not received a copy of the resignation yet, but, "The resignation creates a vacancy. The unexpired term of the commission seat will go on the November General Election ballot."
Fulginiti also said the governing body may appoint someone to fill the seat until a commissioner is duly elected in November.
Part-time resident Mark Merighan asked Fox and Golden whether either was willing to “man up and resign, because I don’t think you have the confidence of the community.”
Again the audience applauded.
Fox said repeatedly he would not resign, and apologized to Golden and Maxwell for not warning them the ethics charges were about to become public.
“You offer no apology to the taxpayers or the borough?” asked another resident.
“I don’t believe anything I did was wrong,” Fox said. “And my attorney feels the same way.
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The Local Finance Board said it was the largest total of fines ever levied against an elected official in state history.
The alleged violations are related to actions Fox took as mayor that benefited police Chief Jacqueline Ferentz, with whom he lives. They were also related to actions he took regarding his daughter Nicole Fox, who was appointed a volunteer Office of Emergency Management deputy coordinator in 2016 at his direction.
Nicole Fox was hired as a police officer in West Wildwood at the May meeting, to the dismay of many residents in attendance.
Nicole Fox’s supervisor will be the woman with whom her father lives. Fox abstained from the vote on his daughter’s hiring.
Fox’s wife objected to calling Ferentz her daughter’s stepmother.
“I am Chris Fox’s wife,” said Debbie Fox, who lives in a separate home from her husband in the borough and was there to support him. “My children do not have a stepmother as much as everyone wants to keep saying. I am his wife — nobody else.”
Chris Fox would not speak to The Press of Atlantic City after the meeting.
Many in the audience asked questions about a jury award of $1.7 million to Ferentz in a lawsuit against the borough, in which she alleged mistreatment and wrongful firing by a previous administration. But the Joint Insurance Fund would not pay the award because in its opinion the borough, then led by Fox, did not adequately defend itself. So taxpayers are stuck paying the bill directly.
Residents asked why former Mayor Herbert Frederick had been dropped from the suit, and for more information on why JIF refused to pay. Some were members of Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood, a nonpolitical citizens group, said President Trish Sennott.
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Borough Solicitor Marcus H. Karavan would not allow Fox to answer any questions about the case, saying it is under appeal. The borough is trying to force the JIF to pay the award.
The tiny borough of fewer than 600 residents has a budget of about $2.9 million a year. It has agreed to pay Ferentz $5,000 a month for 200 months, and her lawyer about $18,000 a month for 42 months. But Ferentz can call for the entire amount to be paid at any time, officials have said.
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 could have received a tax cut if not for the judgment.
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The board said Fox violated state ethics laws when he voted in favor of designating himself director of public safety, with oversight of the Police Department, 10 days before the borough reinstated Ferentz as a police officer and about a month before she was named chief.
Fox also allegedly violated the law when he gave Ferentz back pay and pension credit for a time in which she did not serve in the Police Department; and voted in favor of a 50 percent increase in Ferentz’s salary from $67,000 to $101,000, from 2015 to 2017.
Fox, a retired police officer, lost his job in Wildwood on May 22 when commissioners there voted 2-1 to terminate him, citing bad publicity from Fox’s troubles affecting their town.
Fox said at the commission meeting he was enjoying his retirement, and able to spend more time in West Wildwood.