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In first year, mayor cut spending, modeled change

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Kristen Brown was sworn in as mayor of Columbus one year ago, starting a term in which she promised to change the way the city conducted its business.

Since then, she has worked to dismantle private entity that conducted business on behalf of the previous Columbus Redevelopment Commission, hired 12 new department heads and had a new audio/visual system installed in the City Council chambers to allow streaming of public meetings on the Internet.

Brown’s first year has been highlighted by more than change, though.

She crafted a 2013 budget that will spend $2.4 million less than 2012, helped repeal an unpopular trash fee and used the money from the sale of the mayor’s vehicle to pay for ice-water rescue equipment for firefighters.

Her first year included a forward view, too, as the city created an arts district and outlined plans to revitalize State Street.

The year had its share of tough times for Brown, as well.

Working with the seven members of the Columbus City Council has been acrimonious at times, as the council has expressed differing views about pay for city employees and spending on capital improvement projects. And, negotiating a new ambulance contract caused some rocky moments with Bartholomew County officials.

Brown said she’s never worked harder at a job than she has as mayor, but she said the long hours and demands on her time have been worthwhile.

“I feel really good about what I have been able to get accomplished. Certainly it’s not been without challenges and bumps along the way. I feel very good, and what I can assure people is that I have done my absolute best and given it my all emotionally, intellectually and physically,” Brown said.

A full year

Some opportunities have made the job a lot of fun and rewarding, such as serving as grand marshal of the Ethnic Expo parade, Brown said. Literacy awareness and Touch-a-Truck events have brought smiles to her face as she’s seen how young children respond and benefit. Speaking at veterans events and swearing in new police officers and firefighters has been an honor, she added.

But what she’s most proud of are the visions she’s implemented and changes she made.

Creating a community-wide vision and strategic priority plan provides the city with a good “road map,” the mayor said. That involves making Columbus the best city of its size, Brown said, by focusing on priorities such as a diversified economy, lifelong learning for all, safe and affordable housing, arts and cultural activities and a healthy community.

“That gets us focused on making sure we’re advancing the community and advancing toward our vision. Otherwise, it’s too easy to do only firefighting and just be reactive to what comes in the door,” Brown said.

The mayor said creating the Columbus Arts District and having it receive a state designation as an Indiana Cultural District will help Columbus become the creative and cultural capital of the Midwest.

Brown believes changes she has initiated have made city government more transparent and accountable to residents. A city ethics ordinance that has been drafted and awaits City Council approval is one form of accountability, she said.

Shaving $2.4 million in spending from the city’s budget and negotiating a new ambulance contract at a significantly lower cost are examples of the fiscal responsibility she promised, the mayor said.

Public safety also has been addressed, she added, through purchasing of the ice-water rescue equipment, additional training for emergency responders and implementing a new emergency notification system that sends alerts to city and county residents.

Change has been difficult, though. The biggest challenge, Brown said, has been challenging the status quo.

“It’s easier to go along to get along,” the mayor said.

But during her mayoral campaign, she promised to lead differently.

“As a citizen I felt excluded from the old-boy network,” Brown said.

Even as mayor, Brown added, she still encounters resistance from people who she said want “politics as usual.”

Brown said she has learned that she has to “pick her battles and change doesn’t necessarily come overnight.” And, she added, her working relationship with the City Council — composed entirely of men — “could be improved.”

Moving forward, Brown said she wants to make sure she shares the priorities of the city’s strategic plan clearly with the City Council. That could include more one-on-one communication with elected council members.

Efforts to reach the seven council members for comments on the mayor’s first year were unsuccessful.

Public views

The changes the mayor has made have been viewed positively by some of her supporters, and even by some of those who supported her Democratic opponent in the election. But some also expressed concerns about her relationship with the City Council and involvement on so many city boards and commissions.

Bartholomew County Democratic Party Chairwoman Priscilla Scalf, who in 2011 lost the mayor’s race to Brown, said about two weeks ago that she was pleased to see the mayor pursuing improvements to the State Street corridor. But when asked later about the mayor’s year as a whole, Scalf was more critical.

“With a quarter of the mayor’s term already behind her, with leadership in key departments still uncertain, and so much instability in City Hall, it is no surprise that we still don’t have any vision from this mayor of where she wants to lead our city,” Scalf said.

Steve Cecil, who voted for Brown, said he’s supportive of what she’s doing and thinks she’s been an excellent mayor.

“Her efforts to get (Columbus Downtown Inc.) dissolved and getting stuff out in the open was the right thing to do,” he said. “To me, that’s the most important thing she’s done.”

Cecil added that he likes the creation of the arts district and the plans to revitalize State Street.

He spoke in favor of Brown during a City Council meeting when the council was debating what kind of oversight it should have over the city’s spending on capital improvement projects.

“I didn’t understand why the council was being so restrictive on her,” he said.

It’s Brown’s relationship with the City Council that concerns him, though. He said that could be part of the learning curve of a new mayor.

“She is going to have to get along with those people,” Cecil said.

Judith Gillespie, who donated to Scalf’s campaign, has mixed feelings about Brown’s first year.

“I like the accountability she’s bringing into a lot of the Redevelopment Commission,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie also likes the city’s plans to revitalize State Street.

However, Gillespie is concerned that Brown is on too many city committees and commissions, wishing she would let others handle some of the responsibilities. Brown serves on 15 boards and commissions and leads three of them.

Max Lemley, who ran for City Council as a Democrat but urged Brown to run for mayor, said he’s looking forward to what she can accomplish in the next three years.

“No one dreamed her first year would be consumed in repairing the damage of old history of the last four years. Her time has been (spent) on the past and not the future,” Lemley said.

Winding down CDI and cleaning up lease and utilities issues with Scotty’s Burger Joint in The Commons consumed a lot of her time and energy, he noted.

David Harpenau said he voted for Scalf for mayor because he knew her and knew of her extensive community involvement. However, Harpenau said he’s been impressed by Brown as mayor so far.

“She’s brought a lot of energy and commitment to the position. I think she wants to make Columbus better in a lot of ways,” he said.

Primarily, Harpenau said, Brown has brought accountability to local government.

However, Harpenau added that he has concerns about “how she gets things done.” He noted that some people she chose for key positions, such as fire chief, community development director and executive secretary, are no longer working for the city.

“Overall, I would give her a B or B-plus,” he said.

Brown accomplishments

Some notable accomplishments and changes during Mayor Kristen Brown’s first year in office:

  • Created a communitywide vision and strategic plan that identifies priorities for public safety, education, jobs, housing, health, the arts, animal and environmental care and community development.
  • Helped repeal the trash fee from utility bills, which returned $1.4 million annually to residents.
  • Crafted and got passed a 2013 budget that spends $2.4 million less than the 2012 budget.
  • Helped kill the outdoor sports complex project that a study said would have caused problems to the flood plain.
  • Developed a five-year capital plan to address deferred, immediate and long-term maintenance issues. About $7.1 million in bond money from the outdoor sports complex project was redirected to repave streets and fix city facilities.
  • Eliminated the take-home policy for city-owned vehicles except for policemen and firefighters.
  • Opened the records of Columbus Downtown Inc., the private company that acted on behalf of the Columbus Redevelopment Commission. Transferred all leases and properties of CDI to the Redevelopment Commission in order to dissolve it.
  • Installed a new audio/visual system in the City Council chambers to improve the ability to hear the meetings and stream them live on the Internet.
  • Drafted an ethics ordinance for all city employees, officials and appointees. City Council plans to act on it in 2013.
  • Sold the mayor’s vehicle and used the money to pay for ice-water rescue equipment and training for city firefighters.
  • Got approved a new ambulance contract for Columbus that sharply reduces the amount the city will pay for the service. The city’s cost will be $150,000 in 2013 and nothing afterward.
  • Identified and profiled properties that are underdeveloped or vacant within Columbus. She encouraged developers to consider the spaces.
  • Developed scope of State Street revitalization plan.
  • Formed mayor’s advisory councils for safe, available and affordable housing. A planning study of the city’s housing needs at all price points was created.
  • Changed the name of Animal Control to Animal Care Services to reflect the goal to have a 100 percent adoption rate of healthy pets.
  • Established the Columbus Arts District and applied for and received state designation of it as an Indiana Cultural District.

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