City leaders have chosen James Gant as the new deputy director of the Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department.

Gant’s first day was Aug. 5; the city announced the hire Aug. 6 via social media, said David Ball, director of communications for Hilliard.

Gant, a Hilliard resident, said he is excited to take on the role.

“I am super excited to serve the community I live in through this position,” he said. “There are great things going on in Hilliard, and I see a lot of great opportunities for recreation and parks in the future.

“I’m going to start by doing a deep dive into programming, looking to expand the kinds of programs we offer for youths and adults.”

Gant had served as Prairie Township’s recreation director since 2014.

Prior to working at Prairie Township, Gant was employed by the cities of Upper Arlington and Columbus, according to Ball.

Ed Merritt, director of the recreation and parks department, said he is confident Gant will be successful.

“James is a great addition to the leadership team,” he said. “This community has seen tremendous growth in the past 10 to 15 years, and as a result, there is greater demand for recreation and parks programming.

“James’ background and experience will be tremendous assets as we look to the growth of our programming, expansion and development of our facilities, and the partnerships we want to develop in the community.”

The position of deputy director had been vacant since late 2017, when Heather Ernst resigned. She later was accused by Hilliard investigators of stealing more than $500,000 in daily admission fees from the city’s two pool facilities from May 2013 to fall 2017.

Ernst on Oct. 3, 2018, pleaded guilty to one count of theft in office, a third-degree felony, and one count of attempted tampering with records, a fourth-degree felony. On Nov. 16, she was sentenced to one year in prison.

She is serving a one-year sentence at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, according to Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction records.

Merritt, who was hired in early 2018 after Mayor Don Schonhardt fired former director Steve Mazer, said due diligence for the position was required.

“When I came on board, Mayor Schonhardt and I discussed this position,” Merritt said. “He said the timing of the hiring was up to me. I could hire someone immediately or take some time to really get a feel for the department’s needs.

“I knew I wanted to learn the strengths of the individuals currently on staff and the future needs of the department to help me determine the type of person I needed and how I might restructure the department. I wanted to ensure the person I hired in this key position had the skills and background to help us move forward in the best ways possible.”

Gant was selected from among 58 applicants and three finalists, Ball said. The other finalists were David Judson, a recreation supervisor for Hilliard, and Alan Little, a parks and facilities superintendent for Gahanna, he said.

Gant’s annual salary will be $94,500 and the annual value of his benefits will be $41,047, according to Ball.

At the time of her resignation, Ernst was being paid an annual salary of $88,281 and had benefits valued at $43,155, according to the city.