On July 21, 2017, a jury awarded Ferentz $1.165 million in damages in an action under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, better known as whistleblower protection. In October, the court added attorney fees, costs and other charges bringing the tab to just under $1.77 million.
With the recent decision, that cost will fall to the taxpayers of West Wildwood, a significant burden in a borough with about 600 residents. Ferentz and her attorney, Michelle Douglass, have already agreed to a payment schedule with the borough, but local taxpayers will still feel the pinch. In anticipation of Pickering’s decision, the borough earlier this year began furloughing workers each Friday and increased the local tax rate in preparation for funding the payments.
West Wildwood is part of the Atlantic County Joint Insurance Fund, a group of towns and cities that have joined together for a more affordable insurance option. The JIF, in turn, looks to the Municipal Excess Liability Fund to handle very large costs, like million-dollar whistleblower awards.
For about a year, David Grubb, the executive director of the MEL, has declined to comment on the matter, citing the ongoing lawsuit. Contacted May 11, Grubb continued that streak, again declining to comment.
“I think the decision says it all,” he said. At the Joint Insurance Fund, questions about the decision were forwarded to attorney David DeWeese, who also declined to comment, saying Pickering’s decision covers the matter thoroughly.
The matter goes back about a decade to former West Wildwood Mayor Herbert Frederick. In 2008, Ferentz filed suit against the borough. As mayor, Frederick had accused Ferentz of several infractions and later dismissed her from the department, citing the findings of an extensive disciplinary hearing. Ferentz, in turn, accused the then-mayor of improperly interfering with the operations of the police department while she was acting chief.
Things changed when Chris Fox was elected mayor in 2012. Ferentz was returned to the police department, awarded back pay, given a raise and formally promoted to police chief. Fox, who lives with Ferentz, abstained from the vote to reinstate Ferentz, according to published reports from the time.
In his decision, Pickering describes Fox and Ferentz as “close personal friends and political allies.”
Borough officials have indicated that if Ferentz were not rehired and given back pay, the jury award may have been even higher. But according to Pickering’s decision, included in those resolutions was an agreement that nothing in the extensive disciplinary hearing could be used against Ferentz in a civil suit.