Negotiations over who controls the city’s parks department came to an abrupt halt Friday.
That’s when three members of the four-person Columbus Parks and Recreation Board resigned, saying their efforts to collaborate with Mayor Kristen Brown to work out who controls the city’s parks department and oversees its parks director have been ineffective.
Parks board President Brian Russell and members Nancy Ann Brown and Mary Tucker said they tried to work collaboratively with the mayor, doing what they thought was in the best interests of the park system.
In the end, the board members realized the mayor does not want the park board to have any authority over the parks system or its director, Nancy Ann Brown said.
The mayor believes she has the authority to direct parks employees to do things without going through the parks board, she added.
“She wants to go in and manage the department regardless of what we do,” Nancy Ann Brown said. “The parks board in the past has had the authority to make the rules for the parks department, to hire and fire staff. She wants the authority to do those things.”
Mayor Brown, in a Friday afternoon email, said she appreciated the three board members’ volunteer service to the community and thanked them.
She added she could not allow the parks board to have complete control of the parks department and parks director without allowing any mayoral authority or responsibility. She said she could not delegate her responsibility as mayor and, “unfortunately, this was untenable” to the three board members.
The resignations leave the city’s parks without a board or a parks director to oversee day-to-day operations of 23 Columbus parks starting this Memorial Day weekend, the beginning of the summer outdoor recreation season. The parks system has 52 full-time employees and 150 to 200 part-time and seasonal workers. Its 2014 general fund budget is nearly $3.8 million.
The five-month controversy began when the mayor demoted Parks Director Ben Wagner on Dec. 30 to marketing coordinator.
In response, the Columbus City Council on Jan. 21 removed the salary for the parks director out of the city salary ordinance, shifting the $79,471 director salary to the marketing coordinator position, which Wagner was moved into. Councilmen have refused to reinstate the director’s salary until the parks board asks them to move the money back.
The parks board, mayor and council have been deadlocked, arguing over whether the mayor has the power to demote or fire a parks director and whether the parks board or the mayor has overall control of the parks department.
The board members’ decision to resign came after Russell and Nancy Ann Brown met privately twice with the mayor at City Hall to work out the power struggle, meeting with community leaders David Barker and Rick Johnson. The meetings were to consider a set of discussion points sent April 30 from the parks board to the mayor about the dispute.
In the April 30 document, parks board members had asked for Wagner to be reinstated or, if that was not possible, that Wagner be given a severance package. They also sought, as a board, to hire a new parks director, to supervise that director, and for the parks board to manage the parks department.
The first meeting on May 13 resulted in some hope that the two sides could reach an agreement, parks board representatives indicated. Things fell apart after a second meeting Wednesday.
Russell, Nancy Ann Brown and Tucker then met privately Thursday afternoon to discuss resigning, said Nancy Ann Brown, who had served as chief executive of the city from 1980 to 1983.
“I looked the mayor straight in the eye and asked her, ‘Have you lost confidence in this park board?’” Nancy Ann Brown said, which was toward the end of Wednesday’s meeting. “She refused to answer me. I knew then it was time for us to move on.”
Outside legal opinion
The three already had decided to resign, Nancy Ann Brown said, when Thursday night, City Attorney Jeff Logston, who also serves as parks board attorney, sent an email to parks board members.
Logston’s email contained an 11-page legal opinion from the Krieg DeVault law firm of Indianapolis, which evaluated the legal aspects of the April 30 parks board discussion points at Logston’s request.
The Krieg DeVault opinion said:
The mayor has control to appoint a new park director, with the approval of the parks board.
The parks board and the mayor do not have the power to grant a severance package — that decision belongs to the City Council.
Having the parks director solely supervised by the parks board is contrary to state law.
The parks board does not have management authority for the parks department to fire personnel.
The mayor has control over the park director’s proposed budget.
The parks board must have the city attorney’s approval to hire an additional attorney to represent its interests.
“I laughed,” Nancy Ann Brown said of her reaction to receiving the document. “My comment was, ‘Really? Really? Give me a break. You got a legal opinion on it?’” she said.
Tucker described the document as telling the parks board it doesn’t have control of the parks.
“It’s the second time they have hired a lawyer,” she said of Logston’s email. “We have a city attorney; why are we spending money for an outside attorney to tell us that the parks board has no power?”
“After this, how can we stay?” Tucker asked. “We have no power.”
Logston said he asked for the Krieg DeVault opinion sometime between May 12 and 16 to make sure the parks board had the needed information and guidance about the parks situation. He did not tell the parks board he was requesting it, although he represents them. He did not know how much it cost as the city hasn’t received a bill for the legal services yet. An earlier opinion from the firm cost the city $2,765, based on an hourly rate of $395.
“I will also be sharing the attached response with the mayor so all parties continue to have the same information and guidance,” Logston wrote in the email to the parks board.
Since the parks board had raised a concern about Logston’s dual role as city attorney and parks board attorney, Logston said he wanted an outside opinion for their use about the discussion points. He said it was another avenue of research to ensure their confidence level in the legal advice he had been providing, he said.
Reasons for leaving
In their resignation letter, the three board members said that if the mayor’s intentions are to administer the parks department differently than the current board, the mayor should have that ability.
Their resignations, effective immediately, said that “in an effort to keep the foundation of the park system in place, we are willing to assist in any transition.”
David Jones, appointed to the parks board by the mayor in January, is the sole remaining parks board member.
Jones said Friday that it was unfortunate that the board members decided to step away from discussions with the mayor, city attorney and community leaders. “All the mayor has asked us as the board to do was follow the law as it is written,” he said.
Jones said he has always supported the parks department and its programming and will continue to do so. He said he would do his utmost to maintain a world-class park system.
The other three board members resigned the same week that Wagner gave two weeks’ notice as parks marketing coordinator.
Wagner, who has been at the center of the controversy over who can demote or fire a parks director, said he decided to resign after learning that the mayor would not reinstate him as director. His final day with the parks department will be Friday.
“This has taken a personal toll on all of us and our families,” Nancy Ann Brown said.
“I am sick,” Tucker said Friday in a telephone interview. “I’m concerned, I’m hurt, and I’m heartbroken.”
Tucker described spending hours and hours of her time to try to make the parks department an organization that would benefit the entire community.
“It’s not about politics,” she said. “It’s about making the parks department the best it could be. I wanted to serve another term (on the board). But when you feel that you’re ineffective, you can’t do anything,” she said.
“We have no say,” Tucker said of her role as a park board member. “I have put so much into this. I’ve gone to seminars, park board events. I was sitting on the board because I care.”
Russell said he began his volunteer tenure as a parks board member following in his grandfather’s footsteps.
It was Albert Schumaker who taught Russell at a young age the need for civic responsibility.
“Like him, I deeply believe in the mission of our beloved park and recreation department — Enriching lives, building community.”
The issues faced by the parks department have had a personal impact, Russell said, “steering me away from my volunteer purpose.”
“Over the past 10 years, this purpose has been centered on furthering the mission and vision of this government entity (the parks department),” he said.
Russell said he was hopeful that under new leadership, the focus could return to the mission of providing the best parks and recreation facilities and experiences for Columbus residents.
Council member Ryan Brand said it was sad the parks board has lost three valued community volunteers who cared much about the Columbus parks system.
Brand, a former parks board member, said Russell was one of the city’s longest-serving parks board members.
Russell was appointed in 2006 by then-Mayor Fred Armstrong, who preceded Kristen Brown.
Brand said Russell’s departure represents a significant loss of experience and knowledge.
“I think the parks system is disciplined enough and experienced enough to operate and continue to do their job,” Brand said.
But there is a question whether the parks can operate indefinitely this way, he said.
“Most of the hard decisions — user fees, agreements between clubs, that sort of thing — are already established,” he said.
City council President Dascal Bunch, who is the liaison to the parks board, planned to stop in at Donner Center on Friday to check in on parks employees after the resignation announcement.
“It’s going to be like starting over,” said Bunch, who described the resignations as a big blow to the department.
“I don’t think she (Mayor Brown) realizes what the parks department means to the city of Columbus,” he said.