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Lowry Park Zoo board chairman resigns

TAMPA — The Lowry Park Zoo chairman who approved many of the zoo's controversial transactions with Safari Wild, a private venture owned by Lowry president Lex Salisbury, resigned Friday from the zoo's board.

Fassil Gabremariam, listed in state records as a principal officer of an arm of Safari Wild, announced his resignation at its quarterly meeting.

Zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson said the decision was voluntary.

Two government officials were added to the zoo's executive committee Friday: Santiago Corrada, who represents the city of Tampa, and Susan Valdes, a member of the Hillsborough County School Board.

Corrada thinks the inclusion of government officials on the zoo's most powerful board will create more transparency for the public.

"When you bring folks with a government perspective," Corrada said, "they always keep the public in mind."

Some board members were unaware of Salisbury's private dealings with the zoo when reports began to surface about decisions Lowry officials made to build holding pens at Safari Wild and send animals there.

In fact, the full board has been excluded from all 201 trades, sales, loans and gifts of animals to its president in the past two decades.

Salisbury is on a paid leave of absence from the zoo while the city, the zoo and the accrediting Association of Zoos and Aquariums audit those transactions.

Before making any decisions about Salisbury's future at the zoo, the board will await results from the audits — a process that will take several weeks.

The zoo's board named Bob Merritt its new executive committee chairman Friday. Merritt has said he hopes to include all of its members in decisions made at the zoo.

Merritt created committees to oversee the annual financial audit of the zoo, look for potential conflicts of interest, evaluate the executive board members' performance each year and evaluate the salaries of the zoo's senior executives.

The zoo argues that because it is a private, non-profit organization, its meetings are closed to the public. A Times reporter was denied access to Friday's session.

City Council member Charlie Miranda, a full board member, said the board discussed the processes that allowed Salisbury to do private business with the zoo.

Miranda listened as 2007 executive committee chairman Bill Blanchard told the board that Salisbury had asked him to sign off on several private deals with the zoo, that Blanchard told Salisbury he wouldn't and that Salisbury said he would wait for the next chairman's election for approval.

The council member also said that Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan was nominated to join the executive committee, but was not present to accept the position. If Hagan accepts, a third of the zoo's executive committee will consist of public officials.

In the two-hour meeting, members spoke of holding off on giving bonuses, about recording budget items in greater detail and of changing the zoo's governance bylaws.

Most members who were questioned declined to discuss what was said.

Told of the Times' attempts to get into the meeting, Mayor Pam Iorio responded via e-mail: "I agree that the workings of the zoo must be more transparent."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Lowry Park Zoo board chairman resigns 10/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 2:48pm]

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