Mayor Kristen Brown is scheduled to meet in private today with two Columbus Parks and Recreation Board members to discuss an ongoing dispute about who has the power to demote or fire a city parks director and who should be supervising the director and the parks department.
The mayor’s private meeting will be with park board President Brian Russell and board member Mary Tucker. It will be two days before the entire four-member park board — including members Nancy Ann Brown and David Jones — is scheduled to meet with the mayor in public during a noon Thursday meeting at City Hall.
Brown and Russell have met two times previously about the issue, the mayor said.
The dispute began Dec. 30, when Brown demoted then-parks director Ben Wagner to marketing coordinator without consulting the park board.
City Attorney Jeff Logston sought a legal opinion from Indianapolis law firm Krieg DeVault in February, which said the mayor had the power to demote Wagner.
The City Council, on behalf of the park board, obtained its own legal opinion from Bloomington attorney Darla Brown in April that indicated the issue may have to be decided by a court because of competing state statutes about suspending or removing a parks director.
The mayor has been unable to hire a new parks director since the Columbus City Council voted Jan. 21 to zero out the parks director salary in the city’s salary ordinance, moving the money to the marketing coordinator position. City council members said they would not reinstate the money until the park board asks them to do so.
The mayor posted a job listing for parks director on the city’s website March 14, although there is no money in the city budget to pay someone to do the job. The new job description, which has not been approved by the park board, calls for the director to be supervised by the mayor and the park board. The previous job description said the parks director reported to the park board.
On April 30, park board members Russell, Tucker and Nancy Ann Brown sent a list of discussion items to the mayor about how the board wished to operate in the future.
Those three board members said they wanted Wagner reinstated as parks director and, if that were not possible, outlined a severance package they wanted for him. The severance included six months’ salary, health insurance for Wagner and his family until Wagner finds a new job or for six months, whichever comes first, and earned vacation pay.
The mayor said last week she will not reinstate Wagner.
The letter also said the park board wishes to hire and supervise the parks director, with the understanding that the mayor appoints the director, and the park board approves the appointment. The board contends it has the authority and power to manage the department and the director, according to the letter. The parks director would report to and be managed by the park board, according to the letter from the three board members.
The mayor said she has the power to appoint a new parks director, with approval from the park board.
The department head/mayor/park board relationship works in every municipal parks department in the state, the mayor said, and is similar to the relationships between the airport director and the aviation commission, the planning director and the planning commission, and the redevelopment director and redevelopment commission.
The dual reporting relationship of a city department head to the mayor and the board is outlined in state law and doesn’t take away the extensive powers of the board to oversee the operations of the parks department, Mayor Brown said.
Indiana’s Open Door Law would not prevent Brown’s meeting today with two of the four-member board because they do not represent a majority of the board, according to the Indiana’s Public Access Counselor’s office. Indiana’s Open Door Law was enacted in 1977 to permit public access to meetings held by public agencies. The law requires public notice and the public to be allowed to attend, when a majority of board members meet.
Attempts to reach Russell, Logston and Tucker on Monday were not successful.