Mayor Kristen Brown said former Parks and Recreation Director Ben Wagner violated the city’s rules about credit card use, but his defenders say the allegations are unfounded.
The mayor removed Wagner from the position overseeing the parks department Monday, issuing a letter to him, Columbus City Council and the presidents of the Columbus Park Board and The Commons Board outlining her concern with his performance.
He has been reassigned to the position as marketing coordinator for the department.
Brown did not outline specifics in her letter of the credit card accusations. She could not be reached for comment Friday due to preparations for the winter storm and personal commitments, she said.
However, Wagner said the claim centers around payments he made for dinners for volunteers for the soccer and baseball programs, lunches for the park board’s noon meetings and a Christmas lunch for parks department employees. The sports volunteer dinners ranged from $120 to $201, Wagner said, while the Christmas lunch was $510.
Based on previous practices and prior approvals from the city attorney, Wagner said he believed that all of the charges were legitimate. After being charged to the credit card, the card was paid from money in the parks department non-reverting fund, which is fed by user fees.
Brown said in a short interview Thursday that the credit card charges did violate the city’s personnel policies. In her letter, Brown wrote that several expenditures violated “the city’s policy restrictions on the use of credit cards, such as for meals for non-City employees, parties and gifts.”
Brown did not clarify which aspect of the policies she believes were violated and did not provide a copy of the policy.
In the letter, Brown refers to a recent “internal audit” of the credit card expenditures.
However, this consisted of two city employees being sent to the parks department office to review 2013’s credit card receipts and reporting the information back to the mayor. The Republic and the City Council requested a copy of the “internal audit” about the credit cards but did not receive the document.
City Council members defended the spending in a joint letter submitted in Wagner’s
defense, saying that the spending was approved by the department staff, the Park Board, the clerk-treasurer’s office and the Indiana State Board of Accounts.
“The mayor claims violations of the city’s credit card policy, a policy that doesn’t demand the removal or reassignment of city employees but removal of the credit card in question,” council members wrote.
Luann Welmer, the clerk-
treasurer, said that the only personnel policy regarding credit card usage that she was aware of was written in 2007 when she was the deputy for then-Clerk-Treasurer Brenda Sullivan.
In it, city employees are banned from buying meals for non-city employees, but Welmer was not aware if that was the policy the mayor considered to have been violated.
Welmer said most of the city departments do not have a non-reverting fund as the parks department does and do not hold those sort of events. The only parallels she could cite were the mayor’s promotional account, which pays for things such as $1,100 in food for this year’s State of the City address, and the airport department, which pays for board member lunches on meeting days.
The city garage used to hold a Christmas luncheon paid for out of money raised from the sale of recyclables and scrap metal, but Brown ended
that practice last year over ethics concerns.
Charlie Pride, supervisor of cities, towns and libraries budgets for the Indiana State Board of Accounts, said that generally it is OK to provide for department functions such as end-of-the-season banquets out of parks department non-reverting funds because the money is paid into the fund specifically for that purpose. However, he said it would be questionable to pay for parks department employees Christmas dinners out of the fund.
Instead, cities should normally have funds for those dinners or luncheons paid for out of operating money appropriated by the City Council and the Park Board, Pride said.
But Pride said he had no record of the state board citing Columbus for any such activities and last year’s audit of city finances came back clean.
Chuck Wilt, who served as director of the parks department for 33 years, said that in his day the Christmas dinners were paid for out of a variety of funds and methods, including his own pocket and the non-reverting fund.