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Council urged to restore salary ordinance as impasse remains

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Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown will ask the city council Wednesday to amend the city’s salary ordinance to restore money to hire a parks director.

But City Council President Dascal Bunch said that, until the mayor comes to an agreement with the park board, the salary money won’t be moved.

The agenda item, one of 10 ordinances the council will consider that night, seeks to have $79,471 restored to the parks director salary.

“It’s in the community’s best interest to finally resolve this matter,” the mayor wrote in an email Friday. “This will allow me and the parks board to move forward with the hiring of a new director and to get our parks department back on track.”

Bunch said the mayor called him Tuesday about the salary ordinance change. In March, the mayor posted the park director’s job description on the city’s website seeking applicants even though the council had removed the money to pay a parks director from the salary ordinance Jan. 21.

“She told me this has been going on too long,” he said. “She can put that on the agenda, she can do anything she wants. But that’s putting the cart before the horse.”

The council will not reinstate the money to the parks director salary until the park board asks the council to do so, Bunch said.

Park board President Brian Russell, by email on Friday, said it would not be appropriate for him to speak about the mayor’s intentions on reinstituting the director’s salary.

“I anticipate that we will be meeting soon collectively as a group to discuss the current circumstances with the parks department and the next steps moving forward,” he said.

The next park board meeting is noon Thursday at Columbus City Hall council chambers.

Controversy’s start

The parks director position has been vacant since Dec. 30 when Brown demoted former parks director Ben Wagner to marketing coordinator.

Brown accused Wagner of failing to implement financial control procedures that would have revealed that former Commons restaurant tenant Snappy Tomato Pizza hadn’t paid rent for all of 2013. The restaurant was informed Dec. 23 that it owed $27,237.52 in monthly payments, additional lease obligations and late payments for all of 2013.

The mayor also accused Wagner of having questionable judgment in the use of parks department credit cards and failing to come up with financial options to eliminate a $6 million backlog in park facilities maintenance.

Wagner has said in earlier interviews the mayor’s allegations are unfounded and did not merit reassignment or demotion.

After the demotion, a controversy ensued among the mayor, the council and the park board about how much power the mayor has to hire, fire or demote a city parks director.

In an effort to help the city’s park board, and to protect Wagner, the council voted Jan. 21 to zero out the parks director salary and move the money to the marketing coordinator position to keep the mayor from filling the position until further legal opinions were obtained.

The city has been paying Wagner the director’s salary of $79,471 instead of the marketing coordinator’s salary of $40,883 until the matter could be resolved.

Legal opinions

The city sought a private legal opinion from Indianapolis law firm Krieg DeVault in January that upheld the mayor’s right to hire or fire a parks director. The city council recently obtained its own legal opinion from Bloomington attorney Darla Brown, which said the issue might have to be resolved in court.

The Krieg DeVault opinion says the mayor has the right to remove or suspend a parks director and may remove the parks director without park board approval. The Darla Brown opinion says there are competing state statutes about suspending or removing a parks director. It also says the mayor appoints the director, but the park board approves the appointment. Based on that, the Darla Brown opinion contends that if a parks director is suspended or demoted, the move must also be approved by the park board.

The mayor said the city has been patient while the council and park board have researched the issue, “but the matter has dragged on far too long, and the legal opinions are clear that the mayor has the unilateral authority to terminate or suspend the director of parks and recreation.”

“As an alternative to terminating the director, I reassigned him to another position,” the mayor said. “He accepted the position, and the parks board unanimously approved the reassignment. I have always acted within my authority.”

Concerns continue

The park board still has concerns and unanswered questions about this issue, councilman Ryan Brand said. Speaking only for himself, Brand said he would not vote to reinstate the salary until those concerns and questions were addressed.

“I would hope she would remove it (the ordinance request) from the agenda,” he said.

The parks have continued to operate effectively without a permanent director in place and are continuing to do so, Brand said.

Jamie Brinegar, the parks department’s director of business services, was appointed interim parks director and given a $5,000 raise to run the department until a permanent replacement was named.

“This is a parks board issue,” he said, adding that when the parks board is ready to move forward to obtain a new parks director, the council will also be ready to move forward.

Mayor Brown contended that the council has overstepped its bounds by zeroing out the pay for the director’s position to keep the mayor from appointing another director.

“According to state law, the mayor has the authority to appoint a director of parks and recreation subject to the approval of the parks board,” she said. “The council’s legislative action to remove the director’s salary has effectively usurped my executive authority.”

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