Former Columbus Parks and Recreation director Ben Wagner is resigning the parks marketing coordinator job May 30 without another job prospect and without a severance package.
Wagner’s resignation letter, dated Monday, was written to the parks board and parks employees. He emailed it to parks board members Monday morning.
He said he decided to resign after Mayor Kristen Brown, the official who demoted him, said she would not reinstate him as parks director.
In an April 30 letter to the mayor, three of the four parks board members — Brian Russell, Nancy Ann Brown and Mary Tucker — asked that Wagner be reinstated as director, or that he receive a severance package.
When asked if he would take legal action against the city, Wagner said he is “keeping my options open,” as other people in his situation would. “But I haven’t come to any conclusion,” he said.
Wagner has been involved in an ongoing five-month controversy between the mayor, the parks board and the Columbus City Council over who has the power to demote or fire a parks director and who is responsible for the city’s parks department, the city administration or the parks board.
The mayor demoted Wagner from parks director to marketing coordinator Dec. 30. The mayor claims Wagner failed to implement financial controls that would have revealed that Commons restaurant tenant Snappy Tomato Pizza had not paid rent for all of 2013. The restaurant was told Dec. 23 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 the mayor’s allegations were unfounded and did not merit reassignment or demotion.
On Jan. 21, the Columbus City Council voted to remove the parks director’s salary from the city’s salary ordinance and assign those funds to the marketing coordinator position. Council members said that tactic was to keep the mayor from filling the position until the parks board had an opportunity to receive a legal opinion about whether the mayor had the authority to demote or fire a parks director. The city has been paying Wagner the director’s salary, $79,471 — about twice what the marketing job pays — since then.
In an effort last week to end what had become a months-long stalemate, the mayor, parks board members Nancy Ann Brown and Russell, City Attorney and parks board attorney Jeff Logston and two community leaders, David Barker and Rick Johnson, met in private May 13 at City Hall. After the meeting, Nancy Ann Brown said the group was close to an agreement and a proposed resolution was near.
However, the mayor reiterated that she would not reinstate Wagner to the department-head position.
After Thursday’s parks board meeting, Tucker asked City Council President Dascal Bunch, who is the parks board liaison, to seek a severance package for Wagner from the council.
Bunch said Monday that there was not a way for the council to pay Wagner severance. He added that he hoped that Wagner would consider that being paid the $79,471 director’s salary instead of the $40,883 marketing coordinator salary for five months was a severance package in itself.
Tucker said she knew the Wagner resignation was coming and said she understood that he had to do what was right for his family.
The request for the severance package was an effort by the parks board to get Wagner something, to be there for him, Tucker said.
“He was good at his job,” Tucker said. “He did a wonderful job for the parks. We hate to see him go.”
But with or without severance, the parks board and Wagner want to move on, she said.
Reaction to resignation
Russell, who has been a parks board member for more than a decade, said he appreciated Wagner’s tireless service to the community.
“He has done an outstanding job for our park system, serving with integrity and distinction. He will be missed. I’m hopeful that I will get to work with him again in other capacities for our community, and wish him the best of luck. Obviously the board as a group has not had an opportunity to discuss Ben’s resignation, but when we meet again, I expect the board will recognize his service.”
City councilman Ryan Brand, who was council president when Wagner was demoted last year, said he has known Wagner since high school and worked with him for a decade. Brand served on the parks board and during Wagner’s time with the department.
“We’re losing a jewel in the community,” Brand said. “He has been committed to the department and aspired to make the parks department the best it can be. I’m just disappointed we are at this place.”
Russell has scheduled another meeting for Wednesday involving the group that is working on the agreement between the parks board and the mayor, Nancy Ann Brown said. A conclusion and agreement on the relationship between the mayor and the parks board may be reached then, she said.
“I would like to say Ben has been great to work with. He has been a very good park department manager. I am sorry all of this has happened, and I do wish him well,” Nancy Ann Brown said.
She added that once the agreement is finalized, she anticipated that things would move smoothly to begin the hiring process for a new parks director. State law says the mayor will appoint a candidate for the parks director position, and the parks board will then interview and vote on whether to hire the individual. Nancy Ann Brown said that is the process that is part of the agreement being worked out in the private meetings.
Wagner said he will now begin a job search and hopes to stay in Columbus, where his children are in school and active in parks activities.
“I’m proud to have them participating in the parks system,” he said.
The mayor and parks board member David Jones did not respond to requests Monday for comment about Wagner’s resignation.