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Turmoil at city hall: Mayor demotes parks department leader


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Mayor Kristen Brown demoted the city’s parks and recreation director this week, surprising park board members and city council members who said the action was unfair and unwarranted.

Ben Wagner, who had been the parks director since 2010, agreed to accept a parks department marketing position Friday, taking a 50 percent pay cut.

Wagner also issued a response to the mayor’s allegations, saying the claims were unfounded and did not merit reassignment or demotion. He called one of the mayor’s claims “unconscionable.”

The mayor explained in a “job reassignment” letter dated Dec. 30 to Wagner and the Columbus City Council that she blames Wagner for failing to implement financial control procedures that would have revealed that Commons restaurant Snappy Tomato Pizza had not paid its rent for a year.

She also accused Wagner of having “questionable judgment” in the use of park department credit cards, using them for “inappropriate expenditures and several expenditures that violate city policy.”

And the mayor blamed Wagner for failing to come up with financially responsible options to eliminate a backlog of expenses and deferred maintenance for park facilities totaling about $6 million.

In his response, Wagner gave a timeline for when he was notified of the Snappy Tomato issue, saying he was told about the lease problem Dec. 13 by redevelopment commission officials. After determining the restaurant might not pay its rent backlog, Wagner called the mayor Dec. 19 and got her voice mail.

Wagner then called Sherry Stark, president of The Commons board, and later talked to the mayor, who advised Wagner to allow attorneys to handle the negotiations with Snappy Tomato.

As for the credit card allegation, Wagner called the mayor’s assertion that he used “questionable judgment” in the cards’ use “unconscionable.”

Wagner wrote that the charges stemmed from lunches for noontime Park Board meetings, end-of-the-season banquets for volunteers in the soccer and baseball programs, and the parks and recreation department Christmas lunch. Wagner wrote that the park board lunches were approved by City Attorney Jeff Logston.

“All of our expenditures are reviewed by staff, board, clerk-treasurer’s office and State Board of Accounts,” Wagner wrote.

And while Wagner agrees the mayor is correct when saying there is a considerable amount of deferred maintenance, he pointed out he has made progress with the help of the city council designating $3 million to focus on catching up with the maintenance projects during the last 24 months.

Also, the parks staff has secured another $2.75 million in private contributions within that time period. Wagner submits the annual budget for approval but ultimately the spending levels are set by the park board and city council.

City Council members, in a joint statement, said that the capital expense accusation was the “most unfounded.”

“The mayor claims that the Parks Department has $6 million in deferred maintenance and that Ben bears responsibility for this,” council members wrote. “The Parks Department, like any other city department, is given an operating budget every year from the mayor’s office and city council. There were many years under the previous administration where little or no capital funding was made available for parks.

“Although several city departments have deferred maintenance issues, including roads, the city garage and fire department facilities, no other department head has been held to such a standard.”

Members of the City Council and the Parks Board said they were surprised by Brown’s decision.

Council members called the mayor’s approach “confrontational.”

The council criticized Brown for presenting the letter to Wagner and the council without having a single conversation with any members of the parks department or park board.

“The mayor makes accusations of an absence of financial controls, inefficient and inappropriate uses of public funds and expenditures that violate personnel polices,” the council said in a statement.

“She makes these accusations without any documentation to support them. An internal audit of the parks department is referenced in these accusations which no one from the Parks Board, Parks Department or City Council has seen.”

The council also takes the mayor to task for the “withholding information” allegation, saying “Ben was only notified by members of the Redevelopment Commission, who were ultimately responsible for collecting the rent, just six days before he took responsibility for an oversight that was not the parks department’s to begin with.”

The Republic requested copies of “audits” that the mayor refers to relating to the lease payment and credit card allegations.

Brown provided the first “audit,” which consisted of a list of payments from Commons restaurants showing no listed Snappy Tomato payments. There was no summary or conclusion narratives nor any indication of who conducted the review.

The second “audit” consisted of a search of credit card receipts, but Brown did not provide those Thursday or Friday. She said they were a public document, but she was busy with storm preparations and other duties and did not have time to respond to questions or to provide the documents Friday.

In the letter from city council members, they also said, “These allegations are based on the mysterious internal audit that has not been made public.”

A 2012 audit of the city’s accounts by the Indiana State Board of Accounts, released in November, found no problems with the parks department or any other department.

The council chided the mayor for her treatment of Wagner and how it appeared to other city employees.

“The City Council believes that all city employees and volunteers deserve to be respected, appreciated and applauded for their tireless commitment to our community,” the council members wrote. “They should expect no less. It is our responsibility to recognize excellence in public service and treat it carefully. It is one of our community’s greatest assets.

“Unfortunately, Mayor Brown has chosen a different path. We take exception to her confrontational approach to Ben and by extension, the Parks Board volunteers who supervise him and our parks system.”

Wagner and defenders on the city council said the charges outlined by the mayor are meritless and did not rise to the level of firing or demotion. In fact, Wagner had a largely positive goals meeting with the mayor on Dec. 10, he said.

Although he was initially insulted by the demotion, Wagner quickly came to realize that the marketing coordinator position was also an important role where he could contribute.

Wagner said there has been tension between him and the mayor since early in her term. It especially bubbled up when the mayor wanted to move control of a fund from the parks department to the city council. The non-reverting fund is used to fund parks department programs and comes from user fees from those programs. The City Council voted against the mayor’s proposal, and Brown blamed him for not persuading the park board and council to back her move, he said.

But the friction has never risen to the level of a reprimand or other staged response before his dismissal as parks director, he said.

“I have never been put on probation by the mayor or been given, in writing, a specific directive to do some of these things listed in this letter by a certain time,” Wagner said.

Wagner has been with the parks department since 2008 and was promoted to director as the handpicked successor of Chuck Wilt in June 2010.

Wilt, Wagner’s mentor who served as parks director for more than 30 years, has retired to Florida. But he said the success of the parks department was from the administration, council and park board working together and supporting the director.

“I support Ben 100 percent,” Wilt said. “He is an outstanding professional. I think that I trust the park board is going to take the appropriate action to correct this situation.”

The park board members also issued a joint statement saying that they hoped to meet with the mayor soon to get a better understanding of her decision.

“We have great respect for what Ben has accomplished for the department and the community as a whole since taking over from Chuck Wilt,” the board members wrote.

Wagner’s 2012 pay as director, the last year available through the Indiana Government Gateway website, was $75,643; and he was responsible for all parks department operations, employees and a budget of about $4.5 million. The pay range for the marketing coordinator position tops out at $40,881, and he is responsible for crafting the department’s marketing and public relations message and to promote the department in the media and with local business leaders.

Brown said Wagner was likely to be paid at the top of the marketing coordinator pay scale.

Brown said she has sole authority to remove the parks director and she acted unilaterally, only notifying the park board and the city council after she already had moved Wagner out of the director’s office. The park board, under state statute, has the authority to approve the mayor’s selection for director, but the state statute Brown cited in the demotion does not require board approval.

In the interim, until a new director is chosen, parks employees can approach the mayor for any day-to-day decisions that would normally have required the director’s input.

“It is business as usual,” she said.

“If there is day-to-day guidance that they would have sought from Ben that doesn’t require The Commons Board approval or the parks board approval, they can come to me,” the mayor said.

Letter from Mayor Kristen Brown to Ben Wagner

The following is the letter from Mayor Kristen Brown to Ben Wagner giving details about why she is reassigning him from a department head to a marketing position.

Dec. 30, 2013

Ben Wagner

Via hand delivery

Re: Job Reassignment

Ben:

Pursuant to Indiana Code 36-4-11-2(d), I am notifying you that I am reassigning you from your position as Director of Parks and Recreation to the position of marketing coordinator, a position in the department more aligned with your capabilities. Also pursuant to the above referenced statute, I am required to send a written statement of the reasons for the removal of the director of Parks and Recreation to the City Council; therefore, they will receive a copy of this letter.

As public servants, we are entrusted by the public we serve to be good stewards of their money and assets. The public deserves and should expect no less. As the director of Parks and Recreation, you have enormous responsibilities for the day-to-day operations and finances and the long-term planning and preservation of the city’s outstanding parks and recreation system. Our parks system is a vast, multimillion-dollar operation comprised of extraordinary community facilities and programs that serve as a vital contributor to our quality of life.

Effective leadership of the department is therefore of critical importance. Among other leadership qualities, it requires strong administrative and financial management capabilities. It also requires critical-thinking skills to assess new situations and reassess existing situations and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. These capabilities

are especially important now given the realities of today’s financial constraints and the public’s expectations for more fiscal discipline and accountability. Based on your performance as director, I lack confidence that you have those leadership capabilities to effectively lead the organization going forward.

Recent internal audits of the Parks Department have uncovered carelessness and an absence of financial controls resulting in the loss of public funds; inefficient and inappropriate uses of public funds; and expenditures of public funds that violate the city’s written personnel policies.

An audit of lease payments by tenants at The Commons recently revealed that a tenant has not paid his rent and utility bills for the last 12 months. It is the Parks Department’s responsibility to ensure the city receives lease and utilities payments for The Commons; however, you and your staff failed to notice that payments were not being made. A review of your department’s revenue management processes revealed a lack of financial control procedures. When these omissions were brought to your attention, you failed to notify me or the president of The Commons Board for more than a month and you failed to take corrective measures to ensure such negligence did not occur again in the future.

A recent internal audit of city credit card expenditures for the last 12 months shows questionable judgment in the use of the credit cards in the Parks Department, including inappropriate expenditures and several expenditures that violate the city’s policy restrictions on the use of the credit cards, such as for meals for non-city employees, parties and gifts. Because these expenditures have been “going on for years” is not adequate justification for them. Particularly in light of our financial constraints, the city leaders must be able to self-impose fiscal discipline and continually review internal processes and procedures for

improvement as opposed to blind adherence to the way things have been done in the past.

The results of these internal audits reveal insufficient management oversight and capability, poor judgment and a lack of regard for the city’s spending policies. These deficiencies are not acceptable for a department head responsible for the day-to-day operations of such significant and important public resources.

Last year, an audit revealed deferred maintenance of parks facilities to be approximately

$6 million. This means those activities required to preserve our parks’ facilities (buildings, fields, courts, trails, playground equipment, etc.) and keep them in acceptable condition were not performed when they should have been.

This backlog of expenses is very significant, representing more than one-and-a-half times the annual budget for the parks general fund. The lack of needed maintenance and repairs has led to serious asset deterioration, particularly at Hamilton Center and Donner Center.

Consequently for the last two years, I’ve tried to impress upon you the need to consider immediate and long-term, financially responsible options to eliminate the remaining backlog of expenses and close the

gap between the annual cost of maintaining our parks system and available funding. Only then can we ensure the viability of our outstanding parks system and programs. In the last 24 months you’ve been unable to make any progress toward producing such a plan.

Allowing you to continue to

lead the department puts the long-term viability of our parks system at risk and the City government’s credibility with the public at risk. As mayor, it is incumbent upon me to uphold the public’s trust. That duty can only be fulfilled with department heads who are capable stewards of the public’s resources.

You have certainly been a great advocate for our parks and programs and their continued growth. I believe you can contribute in a positive and meaningful way to the Parks Department going forward, but in a capacity better aligned with your skills and strengths. The marketing coordinator role has potential to be a good fit for your talents and interests. Therefore, I’m reassigning you to the marketing coordinator position in Parks and Recreation effective immediately. Your salary will be in keeping with the allowable amount for this position in the city’s salary ordinance approved by City Council.

Sincerely,

Kristen Brown, mayor

cc: City Council members

Letter from Wagner to members of the Columbus Park Board

The following is a letter that Ben Wagner sent Thursday to members of the Columbus Park Board after learning Monday from Mayor Kristen Brown and City Attorney Jeff Logston that he was being reassigned to a lower position within the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department, from director to marketing coordinator.

Jan. 2, 2014

Dear Park Board,

I am writing you in response to the letter I received from the mayor on Dec. 30, 2013, entitled “Job Reassignment.” I would like to respond to the allegations and ensure that you have an understanding of my position.

I disagree with the allegations made by the mayor and Jeff Logston that are being used to justify my demotion from director of parks and recreation to marketing coordinator. These allegations are unfounded and do not merit reassignment or demotion.

Here are

the facts.

Commons tenant rent and utilities

Allegation: Excerpt from

mayor’s letter, “When these omissions were brought to your attention, you failed to notify me or the president of The Commons Board for more than a month ...”

The Truth:

Dec. 13, 2013: Stan Gamso, Heather Pope and Sarah Cannon called to notify me that there was an issue.

Dec. 18, 2013: (Parks Department Director of Business Services) Jamie (Brinegar) met with Tim Larken of Snappy’s in efforts to resolve the problem.

Dec. 19, 2013: Stan called me after speaking with Jamie and said he was very concerned they may not pay and said one of us needs to notify the mayor. I volunteered to call her. I immediately called the mayor and got voicemail. I then called Sherry Stark, president of the Commons Board. At 3:02 p.m. that day, the mayor called me back, and we discussed the issue. I informed her that I would be happy to contact Larken myself and she told me not to call, that this would be handled by attorneys.

Credit Cards

Allegation: Excerpt from Mayor’s letter, “A recent internal audit of City credit card expenditures the last 12 months shows

questionable judgment in the use

of the credit cards in the

Parks Department ...”

The Truth: The credit card misuse allegations are unconscionable. These charges relate to lunches for the Park Board during meetings that were approved by Jeff Logston, volunteer boards ($201 for soccer board, $120.08 for Baseball Board), and the Parks and Recreation Christmas lunch ($510.74). All of our expenditures are reviewed by staff, board, Clerk/Treasurer’s office and State Board of Accounts.

Deferred Maintenance

Allegation: Excerpt from mayor’s letter, “... close the gap between the annual cost of maintaining our parks system and available funding. In the last

24 months you’ve been unable to make any progress ...”

The Truth: The mayor is correct that there is a considerable amount of deferred maintenance. Thanks to the City Council, our Parks and Recreation Department received $3,000,000 to focus on catching up with deferred maintenance and we have been working hard over the last 24 months to focus those funds on asset preservation and improvement. Also in the last 24 months, thanks to our hardworking staff and the leadership and generosity of community philanthropists we have been able to secure $2,750,000 in private contributions for Parks and Recreation facilities.

I hope this clarifies my position. I welcome any questions you may have. Thank you for your service.

Sincerely,

Ben Wagner

Statement from all members of the Columbus City Council

The following is a statement from all members of the Columbus City Council responding to demotion of Parks and Recreation Director Ben Wagner to a marketing position.

On Dec. 30 the Columbus City Council received a letter via email from Mayor Kristen Brown’s office titled “Job Reassignment.” This letter, addressed to Columbus Parks and Recreation Director Ben Wagner, was to notify him of a job reassignment, a demotion really, from the director’s position to the marketing coordinator position. This demotion represented a nearly 50 percent cut in Ben Wagner’s salary and a 100 percent cut in his responsibilities as director. The letter continued to list a number of alleged infractions to justify this demotion, including personal attacks on his leadership capabilities and credibility.

Before presenting this letter to Ben Wagner and the City Council, the mayor neglected to have a single conversation with the members of the governing body of the Parks and Recreation Department, the Park Board. There was also no discussion between the Mayor’s Office and the liaison from City Council to the Parks and Recreation Board. There had been no progressive discipline measures placed in his personnel file. In fact, Ben received a favorable review from the mayor as late as December 10, 2013.

The mayor makes accusations of an absence of financial controls, inefficient and inappropriate uses of public funds and expenditures that violate personnel policies. She makes these accusations without any documentation to support them. An internal audit of the Parks Department is referenced in these accusations which no one from the Parks Board, Parks Department or City Council has seen.

Her accusation of an absence of financial controls references the collection of rent from a tenant in The Commons. This responsibility was not agreed to by the Parks Board or assigned by the Redevelopment Commission to the Parks Department. Financial oversight of the Commons was assumed by the Parks Department without any documentation designating them as the “rent collectors” for the Redevelopment Commission. The language in the master lease of The Commons clearly places collecting rent and reporting finances as the responsibility of the Redevelopment Commission, not the Parks Department. This confusion in oversight of The Commons’ leasable spaces resulted in 12 months of uncollected rent from one tenant. The letter also accuses Ben of withholding the information about the uncontrolled rent for more than a month from the Mayor’s Office and Commons Board. In truth, Ben was only notified by members of the Redevelopment Commission, who are ultimately responsible for collecting this rent, just six days before he took responsibility for an oversight that was not the Parks Department’s to begin with.

The mayor has also made allegations of “questionable judgment” and “inappropriate expenditures” with city credit cards. These allegations are based on the mysterious internal audit that has not been made public. The mayor claims violations of the city’s credit card policy, a policy that does not demand the removal or reassignment of city employees but removal of the credit card in question. According to the mayor, questionable expenditures include lunches provided to the Park Board that were approved by the city attorney/director of operations and finance, an annual lunch for two community volunteer boards (soccer and baseball), and the Parks Department’s annual Christmas Party. Significantly, these expenditures did not use general fund tax dollars. They were paid for from the Parks Non-Reverting Fund, an account that is funded solely by Parks and Recreation program user fees. These claims were reviewed and approved by staff, the Park Board, the Clerk-Treasurer’s Office and the Indiana State Board of Accounts.

The most unfounded accusation of the letter blames Ben and the Parks Department for “deferred maintenance of parks facilities.” The mayor claims that the Parks Department has $6 million in deferred maintenance and that Ben bears responsibility for this. The Parks Department, like any other city department, is given an operating budget every year from the Mayor’s Office and City Council. There were many years under the previous administration where little or no capital funding was made available for parks. Although several city departments have deferred maintenance issues, including roads, the city garage and fire department facilities, no other department head has been held to such a standard. The City Council has asked repeatedly for the mayor to begin a Six Sigma study of capital needs funding for the Parks Department with no response.

The City Council believes that all city employees and volunteers deserve to be respected, appreciated and applauded for their tireless commitment to our community. They should expect no less. It is our responsibility to recognize excellence in public service and treat it carefully. It is one of our community’s greatest assets.

Unfortunately, Mayor Brown has chosen a different path. We take exception to her confrontational approach to Ben and, by extension, the Parks Board volunteers who supervise him and our parks system.

We also believe Ben should be given the opportunity to refute the mayor’s charges before an independent authority, without the mayor acting as judge and jury.

Dascal Bunch,

City Council District 1

Ryan Brand,

City Council District 2

Frank Jerome,

City Council District 3

Frank Miller,

City Council District 4

Tim Shuffett,

City Council District 5

Jim Lienhoop,

City Council at large

Kenny Whipker,

City Council at large

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