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Mayor’s selection for board under scrutiny

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David Jones, the newest member of the Parks board, at a Parks board meeting on Thursday, Jan. 09, 2014 at Columbus City Hall.
David Jones, the newest member of the Parks board, at a Parks board meeting on Thursday, Jan. 09, 2014 at Columbus City Hall.

A youth sports organizer has challenged the wisdom of Mayor Kristen Brown’s recent appointment to the Columbus Parks and Recreation Board, raising points about the nominee’s suitability to serve.

It’s another twist into a swirling controversy regarding oversight of the city’s parks system.

In a letter to city council members, youth rugby program leader Travis Perry described the appointment of David Jones to the park board as incomprehensible.

The park board — with all four members appointed by the mayor — is a policy-making body that oversees more than 600 acres of park land and about 19 miles of People Trails used by hikers, amateur sports teams, families and other citizens.

Jones, who works at Cummins as a global project coordinator and has a background in marketing, was appointed Jan. 9 by Brown to serve on the park board.

Perry, president of the Columbus Rugby Football Club, used his letter, written that day, to accuse Jones of shoddy bookkeeping as a volunteer coach and spreading ill will among players and parents.

“Any group that wants to be progressive, fill the room and other people around them with positive, forward-thinking ideas would not have this man as part of them,” said Perry, who worked with Jones for three years before asking Jones in 2011 to leave his unpaid girls rugby coaching job.

Jones “showed very little ability to be a team player, work in a group setting or compromise on hardly any level,” Perry said in his letter to the council, adding that he also had a major disagreement with Jones over nearly $1,200 in undocumented spending after the girls’ rugby program hosted a 2010 state tournament in Columbus.

Perry’s complaint about Jones’ performance with a club that uses some park facilities comes amid the broader controversy linked to the mayor’s decision to demote former parks and recreation director Ben Wagner to a marketing job at half of his old salary. The mayor blamed Wagner for not having financial accounting standards in place to keep track of rental and utility payments from tenants in The Commons building, among other concerns.

Finances questioned

Now, Perry has called into question Jones’ behavior and how he handled a portion of the rugby club’s finances.

Perry said Jones set up a separate bank account so the girls’ program finances would be apart from the boys’ rugby operations.

Perry said he questioned several expenditures in 2010, including at least $420 in cash ATM withdrawals for which Jones never produced receipts to document how the money was spent. Perry said Jones was hard to deal with and caused rifts with other club members.

Parents also complained about Jones practicing his team too hard and too often in the offseason.

“Players and parents were no longer participating in rugby because of the coaching,” Perry said. “The girls were practicing three nights a week in October and November when there were no games scheduled to be played until April. It was crazy to train all fall.”

Council reaction

Council President Ryan Brand, who has known Perry for several years through the rugby enthusiast’s contracting business, said the critical letter should worry the mayor because it comes from the head of a community sports club that uses park and recreation facilities.

“Anytime we have a community member who reaches out about a concern about an appointment, it’s important to take that seriously,” Brand said. “Particularly if that person is involved in a recreational activity (and) interacts with the parks department and parks board.”

Jim Lienhoop, another council member, agreed.

“David Jones has been part of the mayor’s inner circle for some time now. As a member of the parks board, I’m sure he will do his best to see that the mayor’s wishes are enforced,” Lienhoop said.

“However, it is important that the parks board operate as a self-governing unit, devoid of politics. While I realize the mayor may appoint whoever she pleases, I am disappointed she didn’t reach out to someone else, someone independent and without the concerns related to his removal from Columbus Youth Rugby,” Lienhoop said.

The mayor bristled at the criticism from council members.

“I appreciate Dave Jones’ willingness to serve as a volunteer and have confidence he will contribute positively to the parks board. I’m surprised city council members are publicly weighing in on this matter, particularly since it’s a three-

year-old personnel matter of a private organization and not about Dave’s performance on the parks board,” Brown said via email.

“(He) has aspired to be a public servant to our community for some time. He is passionate about our parks system and programs and ensuring we sustain them. He is bright, informed, capable, willing to serve and brings his business experience from Cummins,” the mayor said.

Public service history

Jones was among eight candidates considered in October when Republicans choose Kenny Whipker to fill the at-large council seat vacated by Aaron Hankins.

Jones had also been a 2011 candidate for City Council’s

5th District seat, won by fellow Republican Tim Shuffett.

In 2012, Jones served on a City Hall recycling advisory committee and a Crump Theatre study group, according to his LinkedIn account.

Jones was sworn in about 20 minutes before his first park board meeting, a closed-door session that preceded a public meeting that took up Brown’s Dec. 30 demotion of then-parks director Wagner.

The newest park board member has been employed at Cummins since June as a global project coordinator. His online LinkedIn page also shows him as owner of Hoosier Digital Marketing, a company that advises small businesses on advertising. From February 2011 to September 2012, he was a development associate at Mill Race Center, his online resume states.

“It’s unfortunate that one volunteer is being singled out and coming under inordinate scrutiny based on one person’s opinion of a past disagreement,” the mayor said.

“The City of Columbus depends on more than 85 volunteers to serve on official boards, committees and commissions with no compensation. I’m concerned this will discourage others from serving,” Brown said in a follow-up email sent Tuesday afternoon.

Jones was named by Brown to fill the expiring term of Jim Hartsook, the county’s information technology director.

Brown had appointed Hartsook to the park board in 2012, during the early part of her administration, replacing Brand after he was elected to the city council.

Brown did not reply to phone messages or email requests Friday regarding her reasons for not reappointing Hartsook.

Hartsook said he had been willing to continue on the park board for another term, but he suspects communication with Brown over a period of months may have been perceived by the mayor as criticism.

“I wasn’t trying to be a critic; I was just trying to understand where she (the mayor) was coming from and why there was no open dialogue between the mayor and board,” Hartsook said. “I was willing to meet, but that never happened. There was really poor communications highlighted by (Wagner’s) demotion.

“I hope the new board composition can improve that. If I was part of the problem, then probably it’s a good thing that I’m gone,” Hartsook said.

Deflecting criticism

Jones described the fresh criticism — and the fact that Brand forwarded Perry’s complaint to others — as a personal attack that he believes is politically motivated to make the mayor look bad.

Jones said he has never made any financial contributions to the mayor’s election campaign, and he considers himself a victim of “hearsay” and “mudslinging.”

“I believe that Brand’s actions are completely political in nature, meant to criticize the mayor by discrediting me personally,” Jones said via email. “We have a strong and highly regarded parks department in Columbus. I am looking forward to serving my community as a member of the parks board.”

Brand said it would be up to the mayor to take any further action since she picks all members of the board.

“There’s very little that we can do other than to let other people know that (Perry’s) letter exists,” he said.

“The last thing the parks department needs is any question into the integrity of the parks board,” said Brand, who forwarded Perry’s written complaints to Brown.

Asked to leave

Jones and his wife, Sara Petri-Jones, were asked to leave the all-volunteer rugby club in 2011 after organizers accused them of failing to provide receipts for what Perry considered questionable club expenditures withdrawn from a club bank account.

The political scrum over Jones’ appointment began shortly after Brown’s reassignment of Wagner to a marketing job with the parks and recreation department.

City Council members called the personnel switch unfair and unwarranted.

The mayor explained the demotion by saying in a job-reassignment letter that Wagner failed to implement financial control procedures and exercised questionable judgment” in the use of park department credit cards, using them for what she called “several expenditures that violate city policy.”

Wagner responded that the mayor’s claims were unfounded and he didn’t deserve a demotion.

Others say the squabble over Wagner’s performance and the appointment of Jones highlight a broader problem of poor communication between the mayor’s office and the parks department.

No council action expected

Brand said there aren’t any plans to discuss Perry’s criticism of Jones at a council meeting.

However, Brand said the Perry letter might be an opportunity to explore how the city as a whole is vetting nominees for board positions or appointments and to take a look at the process.

“When the council sits down and talks about new appointments, do we have a process to vet these candidates?” Brand asked. “I don’t believe there is.”

The city council, for example, appoints two people to the seven-member Commons Board and two to the six-member Columbus Redevelopment Commission.

Appointments typically are discussed during a city council Republican Party caucus meeting toward the end of the year, Brand said.

“It’s an open conversation,” he said, where potential nominees are brought up and their candidacies discussed.

There are no strict guidelines and standards for vetting nominees, however, he said.

Brand said council members also meet in caucus on afternoons when there is an evening council meeting scheduled.

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