Columbus city Council members ended a stalemate over the parks director’s pay Tuesday, but not before engaging in a combative exchange with Mayor Kristen Brown over control of the city parks.
Councilmen unanimously reinstated a range of $58,000 to $84,000 for the director’s position, money that had been moved to the parks marketing coordinator salary Jan. 21. They also restored a range of $28,000 to $40,000 for the parks marketing coordinator. Both positions are vacant.
The move paves the way for the hiring of a new parks director, to be appointed by Mayor Kristen Brown and then requiring approval from the four-member Columbus Parks and Recreation Board.
Before the vote, Councilman Jim Lienhoop read a two-page statement approved by the other council members expressing how the council views the 5-month parks department dispute.
Lienhoop said the council was deeply saddened by the resignation of former parks director Ben Wagner and three parks board members in recent weeks. He said the councilmen are disheartened by the events that caused those resignations because they “believed — and still do — that our parks department was well run.”
Lienhoop said while council members approved the reinstatement of the park director’s salary in order to “put this issue behind us,” they have concerns about what may happen to other organizations and city departments moving forward.
He said the council has seen tension created with governmental bodies, including the Bartholomew County Council, the Columbus Municipal Airport and the Columbus Economic Development Board, since Brown took office in 2012.
And he said there is one common denominator in the “steady exodus of (commission and board) members and an overriding of their decision making,” referring to the mayor.
Councilman Ryan Brand questioned Brown and City Attorney Jeff Logston about what progress, if any, has been made on the issues that caused Wagner’s demotion and eventual resignation. He said none of the issues that caused the removal of the previous director have been addressed.
Brown said the city is working to find alternative sources of funding and to otherwise fix the current state of the parks budget.
The mayor said she has been disappointed by how the council has acted since she demoted Wagner on Dec. 30.
She said none of the council members have “reached out and had a conversation” in person with her. The council, she said, has personally and publicly attacked and berated both her and Logston inside and outside the council chambers.
“When we come into this room, we have absolutely no idea what you’re going to surprise us with,” she told council members. “The people we serve deserve so much better than that.”
Brown told the council she has no doubt that the act of demoting Wagner was within her authority.
The mayor demoted Wagner to marketing coordinator, saying he failed to have procedures in place that would have detected that Commons tenant Snappy Tomato Pizza had not paid its rent for all of 2013, amounting to $27,237.52 in lease payments, utilities payments and late fees. The mayor also said Wagner had questionable judgment in the use of parks credit cards and had failed to come up with financial options to eliminate a $6 million backlog in park facilities maintenance.
Wagner said the mayor’s allegations were unfounded and did not merit reassignment or demotion.
An ongoing stalemate ensued, with the council refusing — until Tuesday — to reverse its Jan. 21 decision to move the salary money, effectively blocking the mayor from hiring a new parks director. Councilmen said they would restore the money when parks board members received the answers they sought about who had the right to fire or demote a parks director and how much control the mayor had over the running of the city’s parks.
Private negotiations to end the stalemate failed in May, with parks board members Brian Russell, Nancy Ann Brown and Mary Tucker resigning on May 23. Wagner resigned May 19 from the marketing coordinator position.
On May 30, the mayor appointed three new parks board members — Jennifer Carroll, Amy Kleinert and Angela Macy — to join current member David Jones on the parks board. Their first meeting is at noon June 17 at council chambers in City Hall.
Councilman Frank Miller said while the council doesn’t necessarily agree that demoting Wagner was within Brown’s mayoral authority, the council members and the mayor aren’t always going to agree.
Miller said they need to agree to disagree and then move on because the process has gone on long enough.
City Council President Dascal Bunch said while it is time to move forward, it “seems like there are a lot of people who don’t want that to happen.”
He told people to “drop all the conversation and go,” as that’s what he had hoped would happen. Continuing the discussion, he said, won’t result in anything positive.
“There’s no justification here. There’s no winner, no loser. I think we’re both losers,” Bunch said. “And we still don’t have an answer (about control of the parks).”