The Columbus Franklin County Metro Parks board will begin reviewing the district’s home and farm leases after a recent investigation by The Dispatch revealed that the district for years leased a large house at Clear Creek Metro Park in Hocking Hills at low rates to groups of businesspeople.
“I have no problem bringing (those leases) to the board for approval,” Metro Parks executive director Tim Moloney told the three board members during their monthly meeting Tuesday at Highbanks Metro Park.
In June, The Dispatch reported that Metro Parks for more than a decade leased the 4,700-square-foot Benua House perched above a small lake in the Hocking Hills to a group led by prominent Columbus-area real estate developer Mark Wagenbrenner.
A series of leases ran from 2006 to 2017, with the monthly rates starting at $1 for the first three months, then to $1,042 a month beginning in June 2006, growing to $1,420 a month by the end of the leases.
People involved in real estate in the area told The Dispatch that such a site could command a nightly rate higher than what the group was paying Metro Parks for an entire month.
‘The public is entitled to transparency’
None of those leases was ever approved by the Metro Parks board, and no competitive process was used to set the price.
Moloney told the board on Tuesday that Metro Parks has nothing in its bylaws requiring board approval of such leases.
But he said if the board wants, he could bring the leases to them for review and vote on.
Board member Jim McGregor told The Dispatch in a follow-up story that he would push to require votes on all future leases since they are contracts, and as such, should need board approval.
On Tuesday, he reiterated that stance. “As leases come up, I think it would be healthy for us,” he said, noting it would also allow the public to give input.
The other two board members agreed.
“Have we been as transparent and open as we need to be?” board Chairman George McCue said.
“The public is entitled to transparency,” board member JB Hadden said.
Paul Nick, the executive director for the Ohio Ethics Commission, said Metro Parks never approached the commission for an advisory opinion, although he said he didn’t believe any ethics laws were violated.
Wagenbrenner proposed the Benua House lease, which John O’Meara, the former Metro Parks director, accepted. The lease was later renewed while Moloney was director.
Wagenbrenner’s Thrive Companies is now building a $650-million development within the 220-acre Quarry Trails Metro Park near Trabue and Dublin roads west of the Scioto River. That park is set to open this fall, Moloney said.
In action during the meeting Tuesday, the Metro Parks board approved four contracts related to the Quarry Trails Metro Park:
• $230,000 for equipment, including a maintenance truck, two utility vehicles and a rescue boat.
• $181,101 with Kokosing Construction for a parking lot and curbs.
• $241,677 with Kokosing Construction for trails and small parking lots.
• $82,400 with Strawser Paving for trails.
Read More: Metro Parks board to review leases after Dispatch investigation