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Dateline NOVEMBER 2007: 
Audits, Auctions, the Strange Saga of Ventnor’s Fired CFO
(and Still Uncertain Tax Assessor)
and
W♥V’s launch of a YouTube Channel with Links to View Content

During November, our website evolved into the integrated, multi-faceted Ventnor-centered information-and-feedback platform envisioned in September.  The WeLoveVentnorVideo Channel on YouTube was uploaded with initial content (a public meeting); the Forums software was installed on the website’s host servers and began beta-testing with a limited number of registrants and posts setting forth OPRA-derived information for their comments.   Next steps planned:  A mass mailing to Ventnor’s stakeholders, as part of the formal membership drive for this organization.  That mailing will share information about W♥V Initiative and Referendum (I&R) goals.  These are designed to reform Ventnor’s government to make it more responsive to taxpayer interests and attuned to citizen input.  The mailing will carry an announcement of a Workshop in Ventnor, to which all interested citizens will be invited, with representatives from a respected statewide organization.  Laws enacted through I&R carry certain protections against repeal, making the “hard route” of gathering voter signatures W♥V’s preferred route in seeking enactment of reform measures.  Watered-down measures are a sham; easily repealed enactments too quickly become the later-betrayed promises of election-focused politicians.   

The symbol “Au” represents gold on the Periodic Table of the Elements, and it is fitting that those same letters lead into the words Auctions and Audits.  Those two words were the focus of the November agenda as citizens involved with W♥V reviewed officials’ management of a “Fort Knox” that is rightfully the concern of all Ventnor citizens – the tax dollars entrusted to the city to manage responsibly are our bullion, held in public trust

AUCTIONS
The agenda set by the city involved auctions.  Substantial city dollars have been spent in land acquisitions for 6 N. Hillside Ave. inside the NVRP Zone (Click here for details from OPRA documents posted in our Forums ) and the six lots in the 6500 block of Ventnor Ave. (Click here for still-incomplete information derived from an OPRA request). Both appear to be negative yield “investments” for the city and, consequently, the taxpayers.  The Hillside Ave. property has cost taxpayers nearly $200,000 if one adds to its @ $180,000 of absolute dollar outgo the additional opportunity costs of absence from city tax rolls since early 2003.  After the September auction attempt, the minimum bid was reset from $125,000 to $95,000 for November 15th .  

The 6500 Ventnor Ave. properties have been sold twice at auction, and both of those deals ended up in litigation.  Review of how the Auctions have been presented in Public Notices raise questions about how well the successful bidders were apprised beforehand of the substantial “conditions” envisioned by the City of Ventnor as part of the Sales Agreements after the auctions.   

AUDITS & ASSESSOR
Audits and the future of long-time CFO-and-Tax Assessor William M. Johnson’s job description(s) with City of Ventnor were topics raised, and not fully answered, at the November 1, 2007 Commission Meeting.  The Commissioners at the October 18th meeting had announced the hiring starting on October 22, 2007, of Barry Ludy as the new Chief Financial Officer of Ventnor -- but his official term was retroactively stated to begin January 1, 2007.  It is not clear whether Ventnor will pay him retroactive salary as well, which could suggest that serious problems cited in the prior 2005 and 2006 Audits have not been fully rectified through the current year.  (Click here for a PDF from city’s website: http://www.ventnorcity.org/uploads/Agenda%2010-18-07.pdf )

Also on October 18, an Ordinance had been introduced to alter the salary range of the Tax Assessor position.  Mr. Johnson had held that part-time post at a salary of $25,000 in addition to his full-time salary as CFO.  The prior authorized Assessor salary was capped at $29,400.  The newly introduced Ordinance called for a revised range of $15,000 to $65,000. 

That maneuver, to shunt aside from his CFO position a tenured employee serving dual roles (at a combined salary with expense allowances of $92,000), and presumably prepare a “soft landing” at a higher salaried sole position as Assessor, might naturally attract the attention of vigilant citizens.  This is precisely what happened as several W♥V members started reviewing past audits.  What turned up were extremely disturbing Audit Letters and Findings, which have been verbatim cut-and-pasted for posting at the following locations in our Forums section:

  1. Auditor’s August 2007 letters,
  2. Auditor’s Review of Prior 12/31/05 Findings and Failures to Correct with announcement of the “Planned Corrective Action” to replace Mr. Johnson,
  3. Audit Findings of Fiscal Year concluded 12/31/06,
  4. Audit Findings of Fiscal Year concluded 12/31/05.

Some highlights:

  • Successive years in which cash receipts from the golf facility had no internal accounting controls;
  • Failures to maintain the general ledger;
  • Failures to verify whether goods for which the city issued checks had ever, in fact, been received; and,
  • Spending in excess of authorizations or without appropriate resolutions.

The auditors were unable to certify Ventnor’s financial reports as compliant with Generally Accepted Accounting Practices (GAAP).  In addition, acting on a tip that Mr. Johnson had a "dark personal history" in another County which had been chronicled in old news articles, online archives were checked and produced a series of disturbing articles out of both Avalon, where he had once been full-time Revenue Director, and Atlantic City, where he had served as a part-time School Board Treasurer.  Again, there is a link to our Forums with Text of archived articles about Ventnor’s CFO/Assessor.

In a most surprising reversal, the previously introduced Ordinance to raise the City Assessor’s salary cap was withdrawn by Mayor Kreischer.  There were somewhat confusing comments made by the Mayor about the City’s intentions with respect to the Assessor position.  In the early part of the meeting (Segment 1 of 9 of the videos) it appeared Kreischer might intend to offer Mr. Johnson’s services to other municipalities.  In a later part of the meeting (Segment 6) it appeared he might intend to hire other municipalities’ assessors to handle Ventnor’s assessment needs and displace Johnson entirely.  There is some confusion about the City’s intentions about a long-term employee whose unsatisfactory record on the job, coupled with discoveries about his prior history immediately before taking a full-time post in Ventnor,  may have become a “political hot potato” going into next year’s likely contested municipal election.  Compounding that confusion, the Atlantic City Press’ beat reporter for Ventnor, Martin DeAngelis, wrote an article on November 6, 2007.   It stated that “Johnson is staying on as assessor - at least for now.”  That article appeared to be based upon a follow-up interview with city officials.

Important points worth noting:

  1. Mr. Johnson was first hired as a part-time Ventnor Tax Assessor while apparently employed full-time in Avalon,  then later to his additional Ventnor full-time position, by a prior administration
  2. Any citizen charged with a crime, who then is either absolved or who goes on to discharge the terms of punishment meted out, is entitled to get on with his life although prudence might suggest cautious choice of the next appropriate place of employment.

The more appropriate concerns of Ventnor taxpayers are not directed to salacious details,  and the W♥V members pursuing research to write content for this website do not intend to pursue muck-raking – it is better left to tabloids or partisan campaign research staffs, neither of which fit within this group’s ambit.    Rather, proper concerns relate to the following:

  1. whether the safety of female employees in City Hall was placed at potential “risk” in the workplace, and whether such a hiring was consistent with the “fair, unbiased, best practices” hiring of good governance which W♥V views as a goal,
  2. professional competence vis-à-vis what appears to have been publicized unsatisfactory job performance in another position (School Board post in Atlantic City) preceding his full-time post in Ventnor, and
  3. whether the then-recent situation with the criminal indictment might have impaired the CFO’s standing as a man of sufficient integrity to discharge that which municipal finance officers must do: namely, insist that elected officials’ comply with laws intended to prevent those officials from abusing the public trust respecting all our dollars.   

The Audits investigated to date suggest serious deficiencies were flagged over at least three years from 2004 to 2006.  Probes extending further back in time are ongoing.  There are further concerns about the nature of the dual positions held by Mr. Johnson over many years since 1989.  As Ventnor CFO, his position required him to “worry” about adequately planning and meeting budgets; as Tax Assessor, his position requires (or required?) him to fairly calculate assessed valuations on property.  He was in a position to pass judgments in the latter position which could fund those needs which “worried” the former.  Inquiry was made of a municipal Administrator in another N.J. county who found Ventnor’s arrangement remarkable -- outside anything he had ever encountered.  In a similar vein, a CPA informed of the arrangement inquired about who was charged with overseeing Johnson given those particular dual roles on both the revenue-raising, and revenue-disbursing, sides of the city’s affairs.  The CPA felt the combination of both jobs in one person necessitated keen oversight, at a minimum, but separation as the preferred course of action. 

W♥V made arrangements to hire a professional TV cameraman to shoot video of the November 1st Commission meeting, in order to implement the YouTube Channel reserved by the group in early October.  The complete Commission meeting is presented in nine topic segments which may be found by clicking this link to a list of all the WeLoveVentnor on YouTube segments.  The group intends to videotape future public meetings whenever it is likely that there will be interesting topics raised by its members or the public, or when items of significant interest appear on the formal Agenda.