Mayor Kristen Brown’s request that the city council restore funding to the park director’s position died Wednesday night for lack of a second.
The vote was called after a prolonged and emotional airing of the personal nature of the four-month dispute, which began Dec. 30 when Brown demoted then-parks director Ben Wagner.
Councilmen, parks board members and the mayor have been arguing about who has the power to demote or fire a parks director and how much control a mayor has over a parks department. The dispute escalated further when the council erased the parks director salary on Jan. 21 in the city’s salary ordinance, effectively preventing the mayor from appointing a new director since then.
Wednesday’s council meeting included an ordinance request from the mayor asking councilman to restore the money so she could appoint a new parks director.
But the council declined.
Council president Dascal Bunch reiterated that the council would not restore the money to the director’s position until the mayor comes to an agreement with the parks board about the dispute, and the parks board asks the council to move the money back in the salary ordinance.
A lengthy statement from former mayor and current parks board member Nancy Ann Brown was read into the record, as she had left the meeting hours earlier. Then came comments from residents in the audience accusing the council of disliking women, and particularly disliking Mayor Kristen Brown because she was elected mayor by an overwhelming majority.
Councilman Frank Miller, saying the dispute about Wagner’s demotion had gone on for too long, made a motion to reverse the council’s Jan. 21 decision to zero out the director’s salary, saying he was hearing from constituents that enough was enough.
“I’m not sure there is a time frame to end this,” he told his fellow councilmen.
But no one seconded his motion.
Councilman Frank Jerome said the council had already waited months, and now could wait another eight days for a parks board meeting at noon on May 15 where the mayor has been invited to work out the issue with parks board members.
Nancy Ann Brown’s statement outlined how, in past decades, the mayor’s office has worked with the parks department and parks board. In her description, the mayor appointed the parks board, and the parks board took over management of the parks, including hiring the director, hiring employees, setting policies and managing the department.
The statement said this operational plan over the past 60 years allowed the parks board to operate outside of the political realm, to hire a director who could develop long-range relationships with agencies and donors and long-range plans and create a stable department.
The three-page statement examined laws regarding the parks board powers and
mayoral powers and concluded with Nancy Ann Brown saying the only way to settle the dispute between the mayor and parks was to take the issue to a judge for a decision.
“Brian Russell, park board president, prefers not to go to court,” she wrote. “He is trying to work with the mayor, the council and a few community leaders, to discuss possible solutions without
going to court.”
In the statement, she referenced Russell asking for her thoughts and for those of fellow board member Mary Tucker about how to proceed.
She did not say that those thoughts had been placed in a letter to the mayor dated April 30.
The mayor noted she hadn’t had the benefit of seeing the Nancy Ann Brown statement prior to it being read. Mayor Brown added that several attempts to meet with Russell about the dispute had been canceled recently.
“What I have been presented with is a letter of recommendations from the park board,” she told the council.
The letter, which has typed signatures from parks board members Nancy Ann Brown, Russell and Tucker, says the three “would like to make the following recommendations.”
1. Return Wagner to position of parks department director.
2. The parks board understands that because of all the actions taken, the mayor agreeing to keep Wagner as director may not be possible. Therefore, if that is not possible, establish a suitable
severance package which
includes six months salary, health insurance for Wagner and his family until he finds a new job, or for six months, whichever comes first, paid vacation time earned in 2013 and 2014.
3. The Parks Board hires a new director.
4. Establish management practices that allow the mayor to provide her input and opinions about the parks board’s direction but allow the parks board to carry out its management responsibilities under Indiana law. This would include the parks board approving a new director, who would be managed by and responsible to the park board.
5. The need for interdepartmental operating agreements is necessary among government agencies, since one agency of government cannot require that another agency do work for it.
6. The parks board will hire its own attorney with approval by the city attorney.
7. The removal of David Jones (appointed in January to the four-member panel by Mayor Brown) as a parks board member for cause.
Mayor, council reactions
The mayor said the parks board was asking her to resign her responsibilities and authority in regards to the park department.
She called the letter an ultimatum, something that was unacceptable and an attempt to usurp her executive authority over the city.
The mayor said the parks board makes many decisions that she doesn’t have input about.
“I don’t deliver ultimatums to them,” she said.
But councilman Jim Leinhoop quietly reminded her that she was attempting
to hire someone as parks director without the parks board’s approval.
“I find it odd that you’re asking them to collaborate when you didn’t ask them about this,” he said, referring to the request for the money to be moved.
Councilman Ryan Brand said the reason the council did not want to move the money without the parks board’s approval was that none of the causes that cost Wagner his job have been dealt with.
“What we want is to address the issues that caused this,” he said, adding that it’s unfair to appoint or hire a new parks director with none of those issues resolved.
After the meeting, Jones said he was aware and was given a copy of the letter that sought to have him removed as a parks board member.
Saying he would address it with his fellow parks board members, he added that it was basically the parks board making an ultimatum to eliminate anyone who doesn’t agree with them or think like they do.
“I was appointed to not think like them, to not agree with everything,” he said.