Academy Resignations Raise Questions

Two leave amid fears of city control of public safety facility


Jeff Wiehe | | Wednesday, May 7, 2008

FORT WAYNE, Ind.-- For years it has been touted as a center for the region, but the former executive director and foundation chairman of the Public Safety Academy of Northeast Indiana have now resigned amid fears Mayor Tom Henry's administration will allow Fort Wayne to control the nearly $27 million facility instead of a group that would ensure its independence.

That perception has also angered a state senator who heavily backed the project and helped sell it to state legislators.

"What I'm seeing, I don't like," said Sen. Thomas J. Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, a ranking member of the senate's appropriations committee that has a say in where state money goes. "The thing that really bothers me is if we lose track of what the intent of that building is, we'll probably lose funding from the state.

"Brent Johnson, the former executive director of the academy, resigned last week after the resignation of Peter Eshelman, the former chairman of the Public Safety Foundation of Northeast Indiana, a nonprofit organization that had been involved in fundraising efforts but was set to assume certain managerial aspects of the academy to keep it truly regional and truly independent.

Both men had been working on the academy for three years, beginning when then-Mayor Graham Richard was in office.

The facility is a state-of-the-art training center designed to attract not only police, fire and rescue workers from the northeast part of the state, but also federal agencies and rescue workers from across the country. The building, coupled with Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries' proposed outdoor facility, is to be a model across the nation as to how regional training centers can be run and operated.

Situated behind Wal-Mart at Southtown Centre, the academy is projected to be a money-maker for revitalization efforts on the southeast side of town.

"I think they are very much focused on the Fort Wayne police and fire departments," said Johnson of the Henry administration. "They want to run (the academy) as a city building.

"Eshelman says Henry told the administration flat-out before he resigned that the academy would be managed as a division of Fort Wayne. Another member of the foundation, Joseph Ruffolo, resigned last month but declined to comment as to why.

In wake of the resignations, Henry appointed Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York and Fort Wayne Fire Chief Pete Kelly as the facility's temporary directors.

Inquiries to city spokeswoman Rachel Blakeman as to who or what will eventually manage the facility were not answered, but Blakeman said Henry has temporarily moved financial oversight to the city controller's office "in an effort to cut costs and increase efficiency" at the academy.

"The mayor is looking to ensure it's meeting the expectations of its regional partners," Blakeman said.

According to Blakeman, the two remaining members of the foundation -- IPFW Chancellor Michael Wartell and Helen Murray of American Electric Power -- have agreed to remain in the absence of Eshelman and Ruffolo. Blakeman said Henry will take steps to broaden the foundation's makeup to make it more regional.

Neither Johnson nor Eshelman bashed Henry or expressed anger, but said they did not agree with the mayor's current direction. Johnson said his resignation had nothing to do with Eshelman's.

The previous city council had approved a letter of intent to expand the role of the academy's foundation, ultimately taking over management of the facility, Eshelman said. The letter of intent, signed by Richard, was to turn into a contract. When a new mayor and city council took office, a decision on the contract languished.

"The wheels of bureaucracy did a great job here of getting in the way of something moving really fast," Eshelman said.Wyss had been one of the academy's biggest supporters and worked diligently with Richard, a Democrat, to get the facility built. If not used as intended, Wyss said, it could cost the facility roughly $1 million a year in state money.

"If the mission has changed, the funding source will also change," he said. "Once the budget committee hears about this, they'll want answers."

Disappointed that Henry had not contacted him, Wyss said he was "at a loss" as to what was actually going on. He said he had previously taken a lot of heat from mayors in the surrounding area, having to assure them the facility would not turn into a "Fort Wayne" operation.But as of late afternoon Monday, he still had not heard from Henry."Somebody better start giving us answers," he said.

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