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Friction kindles parks’ flare-up

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A Columbus Parks and Recreation Board member sent a clear message to the squabbling city administration and city council Thursday.

“The park board has a job to do, and that is to run the parks,” member Nancy Ann Brown said during a noon board meeting at City Hall.

“It’s not our position to question what is going on between the mayor and council,” she said. “It’s very important to continue to operate the park system and to do it well.”

The parks board, in a split vote, agreed to pay former parks director Ben Wagner the full parks director salary of $79,471, following the full city council’s action Tuesday, despite his Dec. 30 demotion to marketing director by Mayor Kristen Brown.

Board members Nancy Ann Brown, Brian Russell and Mary Tucker voted for it, and David Jones, who joined the board in January, voted no.

Parks board members approved Wagner’s increased salary and also approved paying interim parks director Jamie Brinegar an additional $5,000 a year, steps that City Attorney Jeff Logston said were a formality but required.

The Columbus City Council had already approved zeroing out the park director’s salary and restoring Wagner’s salary to the full amount, until councilmen complete an investigation on whether Wagner’s demotion was legal. The move meant the mayor in effect has no money to hire a new parks director, which is her appointment.

Making comparisons

Jones was the first to bring up how the dispute between the mayor and city council was affecting the park board’s ability to operate.

Before the vote on Wagner’s salary, Jones said his research showed the proposed salary was far above state and national averages for marketing coordinators.

Marketing coordinators are paid $14,000 on the low end and $72,000 on the ultra-high end nationwide, Jones said.

He said that Disney Studios, for example, pays its marketing coordinators $45,000 to $72,000, saying that was representative of high-end private sector salaries.

“I understand the city council’s position, but we don’t need that high-end marketing tactics that private companies do,” Jones said.

In Indianapolis, the median salary for a marketing position would be $42,000, he said.

“I sat in Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and I watched them take away our ability to hire a new park director,” Jones said. “How do I justify giving one employee a raise higher than some employees’ salary for the entire year?”

Pointing out that the board needed to move forward, Jones said he wanted to approve a mayoral appointment for parks director and to begin consensus-building for the future.

But the council took away that option by changing the city’s salary ordinance, he said.

“We do not have a choice in the matter, and I don’t appreciate that,” Jones said.

Council president responds

Acknowledging the frustration, council President Dascal Bunch told the board the decision was based on slowing down the process after the mayor demoted Wagner. Bunch is the council’s liaison to the parks board and attends its meetings.

The council is in the process of retaining an attorney to research laws relating to the appointment of a parks director and how someone in that position may be removed or demoted. Councilmen want to know who is legally responsible for that process under state statute.

Bunch said that investigation could take up to a month.

In the meantime, councilmen did not want Wagner to be burdened by having his salary cut in half to the marketing position amount while the investigation continues.

“I’m confident we will have an answer. If it comes back that this has been done properly, we’ll be the first to apologize,” Bunch said.

‘Zero choice’

Jones again pointed out the city council didn’t discuss its plans with the parks board before making the salary change.

“We have zero choice about this,” Jones said.

But even after the vote on Wagner’s salary, the rancor wasn’t quite over.

It began with a request from Logston that the board vote to move Wagner to the marketing coordinator position. Board members approved that, but then questioned why they were being asked.

“We haven’t been approving this,” said board member Mary Tucker, referring to individual personnel changes made within the parks department.

She asked for a document or guidance as to why parks board members would approve staffing changes that are normally handled at the parks administrative level.

When Logston explained that state statute requires parks board members to approve staffing changes as an ongoing agenda item each month, board member Nancy Ann Brown’s irritation with city intervention surfaced again.

“You’re saying state law requires us to approve all these employees,” Nancy Ann Brown said to Logston.

When Logston said it did, Nancy Ann Brown also asked if the same instruction was being given to every city department.

Logston said it did not, because not every city department has statutory guidelines for personnel appointments — as the parks board does.

“At this point, it seems the rules are being made up as we go along,” Nancy Ann Brown replied.

“I’m not questioning you,” she said to Logston. “But here we are with you discussing this, but we don’t even have the statute in front of us. I trust you, but I want verification.”

‘Interview board’ concerns

It was more important for the city to understand the parks board does not want to become an “interview board” for all positions in the parks department, board president Brian Russell said.

Logston said the board would not have to interview parks and recreation job candidates, only approve a list as an action item each month on the agenda.

Parks personnel could still hire parks workers, but it would come before the board as a monthly approval list.

The city’s personnel office has been compiling available city job descriptions and determining how personnel changes are being made and approved, Logston told the board.

Since the item was up for discussion, no action was taken on it.

After the meeting, Nancy Ann Brown remained adamant that the parks board should be in charge of parks.

“I’m over this,” she said. “All we want to do is to make sure we have a great parks system.”

Saying the parks have won state and national awards, she added that the parks system is vital to the economic health of Columbus.

“It is a big selling point for Columbus,” she said. “I am very passionate about running the parks department. But these have been hard decisions. We just want to run the parks department and move forward.”

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