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Columbus Seeks Lawyer After Mayor Demotes Parks Director

Mayor Brown and Ben Wagner

Photo: Gretchen Frazee

Mayor Kristen Brown listens to then-parks director Ben Wagner explain his department's financial needs during the 2012 budget hearings.

The Columbus city council is hiring a lawyer to look into whether Mayor Kristen Brown was within her legal bounds when she demoted the parks director to marketing coordinator.

The Columbus city council received an email from Mayor Brown on December 30. It included the letter she sent to Ben Wagner informing him of his demotion. It states several reasons, including improperly using city credits cards and failing to collect rent from a tenant at the city’s indoor playground—the Columbus Commons.

The parks budget also appeared to have played a role.

How The Parks Budget Played Into Wagner’s Demotion

In her letter to Wagner, Brown wrote:

“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 an acceptable condition were not performed when they should have been.

This backlog of expenses is very significant, representing more than one and half times the annual budget for the parks general fund.”

“She’s been fairly critical of the parks and the parks budget, so that’s why I say I think there may be more than meets the eye with respect to the allegations that she put in her letter,” city council member Jim Lienhoop says.

After budget negotiations the mayor spearheaded, the city council approved a budget in 2013 that cut the parks department general fund from nearly $4.5 million in 2012 to $4 million.

The cut came despite Wagner’s insistence that several aging buildings needed to be remodeled and the department would be hard pressed to do so and continue quality parks programming on a smaller budget.

Jim Hartsook was a member of the Columbus Parks and Recreation Board until this year when the mayor appointed someone else in his place.  He says when he worked in the parks department from 1998 to 2000, parks officials were discussing how they could upgrade the ice skating rink. It wasn’t until this past year that the renovations finally happened.

“It looks like there is a lot of money going into parks, and it is, but it’s because of neglect over years and years,” Hartsook says.

The parks department also has sources of revenue outside the general department fund including bonds and donations.  In an emailed response to the allegations, Ben Wagner said the department received $2.75 million in private donations over the past two years to maintain its facilities.

Hartsook says there has been a “lack of communication” between the mayor’s office and the parks board. That includes how the mayor wanted the department to handle its budget as well as why Wagner was removed from his job.

“What bothered me about the whole process was to me, an employee should know when something like this is coming. It shouldn’t be a shock. There should be a paper trail. There should be suspensions or written reprimands,” Hartsook says.

We tried multiple times to reach the mayor’s office for comment, but no one returned our calls.

Hartsook says Wagner was well regarded and had not received any bad reviews.

Legal Questions Remain

There is also the question of whether the mayor has the authority to reassign the parks director. Indiana state code indicates the “city executive” should appoint the head of each department and that appointment is subject to the board of parks and recreation’s approval.

The law is more unclear about whether a mayor could reassign someone, which is one of the issues the city council hopes to clarify using an outside attorney.

“We’re going to try to reach outside the city and find someone who will be independent of politics in Columbus,” Councilmember Lienhoop says.

The lawyer will likely also be asked to determine who was in charge of collecting rent from the Commons tenant that the mayor indicated in her letter had not paid rent for a year.

The non-profit firm Columbus Downtown Incorporated originally was in charge of the rent, but Mayor Brown dissolved the group. While the Redevelopment Commission took over much of CDI’s responsibilities, there has been some confusion over whether the parks department was then given charge of payments.

Ben Wagner says the credit card charges the mayor referred to are lunches the parks department bought for volunteers.

“The credit card misuse allegations are unconscionable,” Wagner writes in an email to the parks board. “All of our expenditures are reviewed by staff, board, Clerk/Treasurer’s office and State Board of Accounts.”

The city council is still searching for an attorney. Lienhoop says he hopes after they hire someone, they can sit down with the mayor and resolve the issue without any further legal action.

“The thing that we are trying to get is just some guidance—someone who can help us understand and analyze the issues here,” he says. “Based on what we learn, we’ll determine what our next steps are.”

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