WEST WILDWOOD — Mayor Christopher Fox has been hit with about $25,000 in fines by the state Local Finance Board — the most ever levied against an elected official — for multiple ethics violations.
The alleged violations are related to actions he took as mayor that benefited police Chief Jacqueline Ferentz, with whom he lives. They were also related to actions he took to benefit his daughter Nicole Fox, who was hired as a police officer in West Wildwood at last month’s meeting, to the dismay of many residents in attendance.
Fox did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“We’re happy to see it wasn’t just a slap on the wrist,” said Susan Czwalina, treasurer of the Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood.
She said the group was not happy with the way a lawsuit brought by Ferentz against the borough was handled by Fox and the other commissioners.
“(The fine) is nothing compared to a $1.7 million judgment,” Czwalina said of the jury award to Ferentz in a case that alleged mistreatment by a former mayor. “But it’s something.”
The tiny borough 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.
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.
The borough’s insurance company refused to pay the judgment, alleging the borough failed to put on an adequate defense in the case.
Fox was notified of the fines in an April 11 letter from Melanie R. Walter, chairwoman of the Local Finance Board, according to a copy of the letter provided by the state Department of Community Affairs.
The letter said Fox could request an administrative hearing if he wanted to contest the fines.
Added to the letter were 21 pages of descriptions of the alleged ethics violations.
Some of the violations were related to his failure to disclose all income he receives on state-required financial disclosure statements and actions he took as mayor of West Wildwood to enter into a shared-services agreement with neighboring Wildwood, where he is employed as business administrator.
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, receives a police pension and salaries as West Wildwood mayor and Wildwood administrator.
The investigation of Fox was opened in August, according to the documents.
The fine for each violation is within the prescribed $100-$500 statutory range, said DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan.
The state could not previously release information on the investigation or fines, said Ryan, because board regulations require 30 days to pass after a determination before cases can be discussed.
“The file is now public,” said Ryan.
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