Things just go from worst to even worse in West Wildwood, the town that shouldn’t exist (as an entity separate from the other Wildwoods).
The state Local Finance Board last month imposed an all-time-record fine of $24,500 against its mayor, Christopher Fox, for a long list of ethics violations, including: • actions he took as mayor that benefited Police Chief Jacqueline Ferentz, with whom he lives, and his daughter. • voting 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.
• giving Ferentz back pay and pension credit for a time when she did not serve in the Police Department, and voting in favor of a 50 percent increase in Ferentz’s salary to $101,000, from 2015 to 2017.
Before the state Department of Community Affairs made the ethics violations and fine public, the West Wildwood borough commission voted, with Fox abstaining, to hire his 22-year-old daughter as a full-time police officer.
Fox also was city administrator in neighboring Wildwood, where his longtime friend Ernie Troiano is mayor and Fox is a former police officer. But Troiano and a fellow Wildwood commissioner decided the negative publicity Fox brought the city was too much and terminated him. His severance pay? About equal to the state fine for ethics violations.
No wonder the West Wildwood commission has moved its public meeting times from Friday nights, when its 600 residents are more likely able to attend, to 3 p.m. Wednesdays when most people are working.
All of this has happened since we said last year that West Wildwood had shown it shouldn’t exist as a municipality, and should be consolidated with another “to at least have a reasonable chance at being run well.”
That was after Fox’s housemate Ferentz sued West Wildwood alleging it mistreated her and a jury awarded her what is now $1.7 million — in addition to the back pay the borough gave her upon rehiring her.
The borough’s insurer — the N.J. Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund that covers the majority of local governments — refused to pay the Ferentz award because it found West Wildwood under Fox didn’t adequately contest the lawsuit. That left taxpayers in the tiny borough to cover the big payoff, which was more than half its total annual budget. They’ll be paying Ferentz monthly for 16 years, like a mortgage, but of their future.
Most of those taxpayers couldn’t vote scoundrels out of office if they wanted to. They are second-home owners, paying the local property tax but voting at their primary residence.
Second-home owners are one of the backbones of the Jersey Shore tourism industry. They are an essential part of the local economy and probably are the single biggest revenue source for tourism-dominant Cape May County. The region and state government can’t afford to let the events in West Wildwood convince people that committing to a vacation home in New Jersey could wind up bleeding them with very little recourse other than to sell and leave. Fox himself said West Wildwood employees have sued their local government at least 19 times from 2008 to 2012 alone.
State government must do something to protect the rights and interests of residents and property owners in such situations. As we said last year, one way would be to have arbitrators and administrative judges settle government internal complaints instead of juries.
Another might be to make it possible for municipalities to give second-home owners a voice in local government, perhaps a vote that counts half that of a resident, for example. It would be voluntary on the part of shore towns, but many might want to do so to show that they are responsive to everyone with a substantial stake in their community, not just a residential minority that might become too self-rewarding.
Perhaps New Jersey should have a law requiring an investigation whenever an insurance claim by a local government is denied due to inadequate defense of a lawsuit. The findings could be presented in Superior Court and appropriate responses could be ordered.
West Wildwood isn’t just a blot on neighboring Wildwood, or on the Cape May County shore — as matters stand, it puts into doubt New Jersey’s ability to ensure reasonably responsible local government. State government must somehow eliminate that doubt.