The Columbus City Council has sent a sharp rebuke to Mayor Kristen Brown, moving to double the pay of the city parks director she demoted.
It then wiped out all the money in a city salary ordinance that could have been used to hire a replacement for Ben Wagner.
“We are disappointed in your decision (to demote Wagner), the manner in which it was made and the rationale behind it,” said City Council member Jim Lienhoop, staring directly at the mayor five seats away during a tense, three-hour council meeting Tuesday night.
“Ben’s compensation should continue at his old pay rate until we get to the bottom of this situation,” Lienhoop said, referring to Brown’s Dec. 30 demotion of Wagner to department marketing coordinator at roughly half of his old salary.
Lienhoop said the council plans to hire an independent attorney as early as next week to review Wagner’s situation and determine if the mayor was within her authority to take action against him.
The council member made a motion to boost Wagner’s pay as marketing coordinator from a maximum of $40,883 per year to $79,471, which is what Wagner was making before his reprimand and demotion.
The council approved the pay change on a unanimous vote, although it still must come back before the group for a second and final vote during the Feb. 4 council meeting.
Council member Tim Shuffett described the ousted parks director as “energetic and a great asset to the community. It’s important to maintain his salary until we get to the bottom of this.”
Brown has insisted that Wagner’s demotion was justified, saying in a job-reassignment letter that Wagner failed to implement financial control procedures and exercised questionable judgment in the use of department credit cards, using them for what the mayor called “several expenditures that violate city policy.”
In part, Brown also blamed Wagner for not realizing Snappy Tomato Pizza had gone a year without paying rent to the city, as the parks department was collecting those payments.
Mayor displeased by move
On Wednesday, the mayor called the council’s latest action “counterproductive” and said she hopes to talk with members of the city Parks and Recreation Board to seek their direction.
“I understand that change, particularly personnel decisions, can be met with resistance and displeasure. However, according to state law, the director of parks serves at the will of the mayor and can be terminated or suspended by the mayor for any reason,” Brown wrote in an email to The Republic.
“I had hoped the parks board would accept the reassignment of Ben Wagner into the marketing role, since it was the only alternative to terminating his employment.”
Wagner, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, has said in the past that the mayor’s claims were unfounded and he didn’t deserve a demotion.
Lienhoop said he thinks Brown was trying to goad Wagner into resigning by demoting him and slashing his pay.
Faced with the alternative of having no job, however, Wagner agreed to the reassignment and pledged to contribute to the best of his ability.
“These are pretty serious allegations the mayor has raised (against Wagner), and it warrants an investigation and an opportunity for Ben to respond,” Lienhoop said Wednesday.
Park board members have generally supported Wagner, praising his commitment to the department and his skill at fundraising.
Brian Russell, park board president, said council members had not alerted him in advance of their move to adjust Wagner’s marketing salary.
Russell declined to comment further, saying he hadn’t yet “gotten my hands around this.”
Councilman: ‘Chess match’
“Decisions on department heads and staffing are central to the mayor’s executive powers,” Brown argued just before the full council voted 7-0 in favor of increasing Wagner’s pay. “The council is overstepping its bounds as the legislative (branch).”
Lienhoop, in a subsequent interview, described the council’s action as part of a “chess match” to persuade the mayor to meet “and find a reasonable solution.”
Several residents who attended the meeting expressed an interest in having their positions on the matter heard.
However, Brown said allowing audience members to comment on Lienhoop’s motion or the Wagner situation in general would be improper. She said personnel matters should remain confidential.
But Lienhoop and other council members said they wanted to hear from constituents.
“Your letter of dismissal has made this a public matter,” council member Kenny Whipker told the mayor.
On Wednesday, Lienhoop said he was dismayed by Brown’s apparent reluctance to hear from the public.
“She ran (for office) on the notion of being open and transparent, and then when people come and want to make a comment, she’s not interested in listening,” he said.
Council member Ryan Brand said via email that the confrontation with the mayor “is about protecting a valuable department director” while the council gathers more information.
“This demotion has placed Mr. Wagner under a great deal of financial difficulty,” Brand wrote. “We chose to adjust the salary ordinance to relieve this pressure on Mr. Wagner while an independent review occurs.”
“There are many other unanswered questions on the role of the parks board without a sitting department director,” Brand wrote. “What are the powers and responsibilities of the board at this time?
“Until there’s greater care in understanding local and state park board statutes, we don’t believe the director’s position should be filled. Creating a $0 pay range for the director is the council’s check-and-balance in this process while we have others take a thorough, unbiased look at the situation.”
Public: ‘Baffled,’ ‘disrespectful’
Richard Gold, owner of Simon Skjodt marketing and a supporter of Wagner, lauded the former director for his “passion, character and commitment to the parks system. I was baffled to hear the reasons for his demotion.”
Gold said he supports council members seeking an outside review of the mayor’s personnel action.
Columbus resident Tipton Dodge, another Wagner supporter, criticized Brown for “using her power to intimidate people. I wonder how many good people she has forced out.”
Dodge said losing Wagner as director could hurt private contributions to the parks system and foster an environment of fear, distrust and anger.
Others, however, rose to the mayor’s defense.
Real estate developer Deb Perr of Columbus, who said she contributed to Brown’s 2011 mayoral campaign, called the council’s actions “calculated and disrespectful to the mayor.”
She contends the mayor has the sole right to hire and discipline department heads.
“It appeared the council had made this plan in advance to bully the mayor,” Perr said.
Perr also criticized the council’s alteration of pay scales as a waste of tax dollars.
“This is a very shifty way to make the taxpayers pay more for a marketing coordinator,” she said. “And how is the mayor going to interview anyone to take the job of parks director” if the salary has been taken down to zero?
Lienhoop said the council had not made plans in advance plans to alter pay rates. He said he came up with the idea after arriving at City Hall for the 6 p.m. session.
Lienhoop said the council has funds available to hire an outside lawyer to do research and advise council members on whether the mayor or the park board itself controls the parks director’s job.
He said council members want to understand the interplay between the municipal code, the mayor’s authority over department heads and a state law granting operational powers to an independent park board.
“While the mayor appoints department heads, it’s supposed to be a hands-off process with the parks board that keeps political influence out of it,” Lienhoop said.
“I hope we could sit down with the mayor and have some discussion on this and find a reasonable solution,” Lienhoop said. “No one wants to go to court.”
Lienhoop said he’s not concerned that parks department operations would be disrupted by paying a marketing coordinator a salary more in line with what a department head would earn.
“The parks department has a lot of capable people who know their jobs and can just keep functioning,” he said.
In a related move, the council endorsed a temporary pay hike for Jamie Brinegar, the parks department’s business services director, who has been asked to oversee the agency’s day-to-day functions until the director’s job is filled.
That action, which also needs a second vote of approval from the council before it takes effect, would increase Brinegar’s annual pay by $5,000 to $67,975.
Ben Wagner demotion timeline
Mid-November: Redevelopment attorney
Stan Gamso learns that Snappy Tomato Pizza restaurant has not paid rent over the entire year.
Dec. 13: Gamso informs parks director Ben Wagner of the situation, and Wagner in turn notifies Mayor Kristen Brown.
Dec. 30: Brown demotes Wagner, whose department was collecting rent payments from Commons restaurants. Other factors cited by the mayor in Wagner’s demotion: questionable judgment in use of city credit cards and making inappropriate expenditures. Brown intended to offer Wagner $40,883, the top of the scale for the department’s open marketing director position. He was making $79,471 as parks director.
Jan. 9: City park board names Jamie Brinegar, the department’s business services director, to oversee day-to-day operations and recommends a raise.
Tuesday: City Council acts to appropriate an extra $5,000 for Brinegar, whose salary was $62,975, to compensate for additional responsibility. The council also votes to restore Wagner’s salary of $79,471 until explanations on the demotion can be made to the council’s satisfaction.
Next week: The council could have an independent attorney in place to review Wagner’s situation and determine if the mayor was within her authority to demote him.
Feb. 4: Parks department salary increases for Brinegar and Wagner, part of the city’s 2014 salary ordinance, will be considered for final approval during the council meeting that evening.