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Parks Deal near, officials say

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A tentative agreement appears near between the Columbus Parks and Recreation Board and Mayor Kristen Brown over the hiring of a new parks director and supervision of the parks department.

That development was revealed after a Thursday parks board meeting at City Hall, where about 40 people gathered, expecting to watch the parks board and city council members discuss their nearly five-month controversy with the mayor.

The mayor did not attend Thursday’s public meeting and did not return a call requesting comment about the agreement. Two city council members attended the meeting — Dascal Bunch, the city council’s liaison to the parks board, and Frank Jerome. Other city council members did not attend.


Instead of a discussion, Parks Board President Brian Russell read a brief prepared statement saying a private meeting Tuesday between two parks board members, the mayor and city attorney and two community leaders was positive and that a proposed resolution on the matter could be reached in the near future.

The dispute is over who has the power to demote or fire a city parks director and who should be supervising the director and the parks department — the parks board or the mayor.

Mayor Brown has repeatedly said she would not reinstate former parks director Ben Wagner to his department-head job, despite a request to do so by three of the four parks board members.

Wagner, who was demoted by the mayor to marketing coordinator Dec. 30, instead will be offered a severance package if city councilmen approve it, Bunch said.

Bunch said board member Mary Tucker asked him to ask the council to approve a severance package for Wagner.

Parks board members would not give details about whether Wagner would have a choice in accepting the severance package or being able to stay in the marketing coordinator job.

The settlement proposed for Wagner was to be six months’ salary and health insurance coverage for him and his dependents for a similar term or until he finds a new job, whichever comes first. He also would receive earned vacation pay.

Among other issues from the controversy:

The mayor will present a candidate for the parks director position and the parks board will interview that candidate, Tucker said. The parks board would vote to accept or reject a candidate the mayor proposes. “She (the mayor) has the authority to select someone, and we will interview that person,” Tucker said. “We (the parks board) have the last say.”

The parks board and mayor will agree to jointly supervise the parks director instead of just the parks board, Tucker said. In an April 30 letter, a majority of the parks board members asked to hire a new director and have sole supervision over that person. Tucker said the dual supervision was the “only way to resolve this and move forward.”

The parks board will be in charge of and retain the authority to operate the parks department, parks board member Nancy Ann Brown said. “I believe the community will be satisfied with the agreement,” she said.

The settlement will cover a request for an interagency agreement between the Columbus Redevelopment Commission and the parks board about who is responsible for collecting restaurant lease payments from Commons restaurants, Nancy Ann Brown said. When Wagner was demoted, one of the issues brought up by the mayor was that Wagner failed to have financial controls in place that would have determined Commons tenant Snappy Tomato Pizza did not pay rent for all of 2013. No written agreement exists designating the task of collecting restaurant lease payments to the parks department by the Columbus Redevelopment Commission.

Russell, Nancy Ann Brown and Tucker will not resign from the parks board. Tucker said after Thursday’s meeting that although the three had offered to resign if the mayor requested that, “We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to stick with it.”

Parks board member David Jones said he is unaware if the three other members of the board are still seeking his removal from the board for cause. “They have never communicated their concerns to me personally, choosing instead to use emails to the mayor,” he said. “The mayor has said she is not seeking the resignations of the parks board members. I assume that this issue will not be a part of the final resolution.”

When agreement details become final, the matter could come before the parks board in a special meeting as early as next week, Nancy Ann Brown said. There are still a few points to be worked out, she said, and all parks board members will not be available for a meeting until early next week.

“I am hopeful that we are moving in the right direction and that we are able to reach a proposed resolution in the very near future,” Russell said in his meeting-concluding statement.

Russell left the meeting without talking more about his statement. Attempts to reach him later were unsuccessful.

When asked if he agreed with the tentative agreement, Jones said he could not yet say because the resolution hasn’t been finalized.

Members of the public who attended Thursday’s board meeting expecting an airing of viewpoints said they were confused by the lack of discussion on the issue.

“That’s the only reason I came down here,” said Joe Anderson, Columbus, who said he had gotten to the council chambers early to get a good seat. “I wanted to see them settle this issue.”

After the meeting adjourned, Bunch said he wasn’t sure about what had just taken place.

Bunch said he wasn’t asked by any park board members to reinstate the park director’s salary to the director’s position, but he expected that to be part of the final agreement.

City councilmen voted Jan. 21 to move the $79,471 director’s salary to Wagner’s position as marketing coordinator and eliminated funding for the park director’s salary. The mayor placed an ordinance on the city council agenda May 6 seeking to have the money moved back, but the request died for lack of a second.

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