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Column: Mayor should collaborate with those whose views differ


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I am a professional parks and recreation expert with more than 40 years of experience in leadership management positions in the field. My greatest blessing was the opportunity to serve as director of parks and recreation for Columbus for 33 years, retiring in 2010.

During my tenure, God helped me to establish a collaborative partnership with the park board, previous mayors, city councils, business and community leaders, and citizens from all walks of life to make Columbus one of the best places to live and work.

Our department became a major part of the community’s economic development plan and has been looked upon as a key contributor to its success over the years. It was recognized as an essential part of city government.

The past five months have been a crisis for parks and recreation. I am very sad to see the reputation of the department and everything that so many volunteer park board members, citizens from all walks of life, business and community leaders have done to be diminished by our mayor as if it never happened and needs a grand fix.

We would not have a People Trails system today without the 30 volunteers who started the idea with the first mile in 1987. Its continued growth over the years would not have been possible without the Columbus Park Foundation.

There would not be a Foundation for Youth facility today if Mayor Fred Armstrong, City Council, the park board, business leaders and citizens had not come together in 1998 to save it. There would not be a Mill Race Park without a similar partnership during Mayor Bob Stewart’s administration.

The park board and staff were key contributors to the establishment of the partnership to create the Columbus Area Arts Council and the new Commons.

The department’s partnership with the Healthy Communities council and the Wellness Program have made for a viable and affordable program for our citizens. The Lincoln Park softball complex, Clifty Park baseball complex and Wigh soccer complex at Blackwell Park are all examples of what partnering with interested citizens produces. The Jolie Crider Memorial Skate Park and Clifty dog park are two other examples of what partnering and working together can do. Mill Race Center is another partnership example.

God tells us in the Bible that all things that happen are meant for the good of those who love the Lord. The Bible also says that God selects our leaders and that sometimes they too often lack wisdom and judgment. It is our role to pray for them and continue to offer up the gifts that God gives us to make our community better.

We need to continue to make the mayor aware of how important it is to have a professional director of parks and recreation and citizens on the park board who have experience with the program and a strong desire to do what is best for the community regardless how the mayor or other politicians feel.

Columbus has been blessed with over 66 years of great professional parks and recreation leadership through its directors, staff, volunteers and board members. The citizens must hold the mayor accountable to continue this and not bring in only those to lead who share her viewpoint.

I disagree with the way the mayor has handled this situation, and I have been praying for her to change her attitude and for my attitude toward her.

During the past 66 years, the nonpartisan park board and directors have been given the authority to manage the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department while at the same time working with the mayor and City Council to assure them that what was happening was what the community wanted and not politically motivated.

There was no real power struggle but a collaborative relationship built on trust and respect. There was not always agreement, and many times the director and board compromised with the mayor and City Council.

The result was that more and more responsibility was given to the Parks and Recreation Department and more partnerships with other community organizations were formed for the betterment of Columbus.

The department was also involved with the community Stephen Covey Seven Habits program and focused on customer service. The budget grew with more responsibility and recreation facilities. The department was featured at the Leadership Bartholomew County meetings as a leader in collaboration.

I felt that Ben Wagner could have been a long-term director. He is a local citizen who grew up in Columbus and who made many great contributions to youth during his 10 years at the Foundation for Youth.

He was recognized by Indiana University Department of Recreation and Park Administration as one of its top graduates. He served two years as my assistant, making for a smooth transition of leadership.

He is highly respected by the community, our staff, other directors and parks and recreation professionals around the state. He was in line to become president someday of the Indiana Parks and Recreation Association.

During the past four years, he played a key role in the construction and opening of the new Commons, Mill Race Center, expansion of the People Trails, increasing fundraising through the Columbus Park Foundation and adjusting the staffing of the department due to budget cuts.

The community was blessed to have him, and I was blessed to be his mentor. I pray Ben will be able to stay in the community he loves so much and know God has a great plan for him and his family.

Columbus has been blessed by the leadership and dedication of Brian Russell, who gave 10 years of volunteer service as a member of the parks board.

Thanks go to Nancy Ann Brown and Mary Tucker for their passion for the department and their volunteer service. I worked with Nancy Ann when she was mayor. She was a great leader who trusted department heads and let them and their boards do their jobs.

Thanks also to Jim Hartsook, who was forced off the parks board in January by the mayor. Finally, thanks to Dascal Bunch and the City Council for their support.

I pray for the parks staff to continue to provide the best possible services while the department leadership changes. They are true professionals, and the community is blessed to have them.

Chuck Wilt was the director of the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department from 1977 to 2010. The department was given the National Recreation and Park Association Award in 1995 for outstanding recreation management for our size of city.

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