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Parks board, council at odds over job funding

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A confrontation erupted this week over when the City Council will free up monies to fund the vacant parks director’s position.

David Jones, newest member of the city Parks and Recreation Board, sought the answer from Dascal Bunch, newly elected council president, during Thursday’s park board meeting.

Bunch said the council will consider restoring funding for the parks director position when it has answers about how much power Mayor Kristen Brown has over the hiring, firing or demotion of the person holding that job.

Brown demoted then-parks director Ben Wagner to parks marketing coordinator Dec. 30. She accused him of failing to implement financial control procedures that would have revealed that former Commons restaurant tenant Snappy Tomato Pizza hadn’t paid rent for all of 2013. She also accused Wagner of having questionable judgment in the use of parks department credit cards and with failing to come up with financial options to eliminate a $6 million backlog in park facilities maintenance.

The council responded to the mayor’s action to demote Wagner on

Jan. 21 by zeroing out the park director’s salary of $79,471. It moved that money in the salary ordinance to the marketing coordinator’s position,

preventing the mayor and the parks board from filling the parks director’s job. The marketing coordinator is normally paid $40,883, but Wagner is keeping his higher salary in the lower-level position for the time being.

The job of director of parks and recreation, however, is posted on the city’s website. The posting indicates that the position reports to both the mayor of Columbus and the city’s Parks and Recreation Board.

In mid-February, the council hired private attorney Darla Brown of Bloomington to research how much power the mayor has over personnel moves within the parks department. Councilmen want to know whether the mayor could legally remove Wagner from the director’s position without park board approval.

Darla Brown’s expected opinion became the focus of Thursday’s dispute, particularly after the city council learned a month afterward that City Attorney Jeff Logston already had sought a private attorney’s opinion in January. That opinion, from Indianapolis law firm Krieg DeVault, supported the mayor’s position that she has the power to remove the parks director.

The city paid $2,765 for seven hours of Krieg DeVault research, at $395 an hour, receiving the opinion Feb. 21. It was shared with park board members by email.

The fallout from Wagner’s demotion has entangled the city administration, parks board and city council in a power struggle since January. All of those parties want to know who has the authority to appoint or fire a parks director and who is in charge of the parks department — the city or the parks board.

In Thursday’s rekindling of the issue Jones threw the first volley at Bunch, the city council’s liaison to the park board, in an exchange that lasted several minutes.

The confrontation began when Jones asked Bunch why the parks board did not have an answer yet from attorney Darla Brown when Bunch had given a four-week timeline for it to be done. Bunch replied that he didn’t give any kind of timeline but that the council was in the process of getting a private opinion. Bunch added that much of the “stuff” the park board is going through might not have happened if the council had known Logston already had sought a private opinion from the Indianapolis law firm.

When Jones said he would rather see Darla Brown’s opinion “sooner than later,” Bunch responded that the issue was a “little more complicated than you and some folks think it is.”

“I can’t rush the issue,” Bunch said, indicating that answers could be two more weeks away.

When Jones asked Bunch to go back to the council and rescind the council’s action on the salary ordinance, to allow hiring a parks director, Bunch was blunt in his reply.

“That’s not going to happen,” he said.

Jones argued that the council has taken away the park board’s ability to fill the position, saying that was “unacceptable.”

“There is no case law on this,” Bunch said of the state statute that says a mayor appoints the parks director subject to the approval of the park board. “No city has faced this before.”

Bunch said the council wants to make sure the parks board, the parks department and the council have correct information.

“You’ll get your answer when we get ours,” he said to Jones.

Wagner, who had made several presentations to the board about park maintenance and other issues earlier in the meeting, sat impassively as Jones and Bunch verbally sparred.

When he was demoted, Wagner said the mayor’s claims were unfounded and did not merit reassignment or demotion.

After the meeting, Bunch said the council won’t change its stance of leaving the parks director’s position vacant until the legalities are sorted out.

“If our attorney comes back and says the mayor has the right to do this, we will be the first ones to apologize,” he said. “But I don’t want to call the dogs off until we get something done on this issue.”

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