TAMPA — Government officials made it clear Thursday they want answers to ethical questions swirling around Lowry Park Zoo president Lex Salisbury, with calls for an investigation and the mayor making demands.
Meanwhile, Salisbury spoke for the first time about the heat he's receiving for structures the zoo built at his private animal park. He called the controversy a misunderstanding, saying it is based on "perceived" conflicts of interest.
"I take responsibility for having probably erred in judgment for this," he said. "I should not have made private resources available to the zoo."
Salisbury, who owns a 258-acre game park called Safari Wild, leased 10 acres of that land to the zoo for free to allow zoo animals to roam its pastures. On those acres, the zoo built a horse barn and fencing and started constructing a holding area for birds and small primates.
When government officials learned of the zoo's Safari Wild connections this week, many cringed at the idea of taxpayer money being spent on private land. Salisbury said none was, and that most of the zoo's $20-million budget is privately generated.
But the zoo was given $450,000 this year by the city and $2.2-million by the county.
As of Thursday afternoon, Salisbury hadn't spoken to them about the controversy.
He said he planned to, and thought they would ultimately understand the zoo benefitted from the partnership, and trust his record of helping the zoo grow.
"I just owe them an explanation," he said.
He'll have a lot of people to meet with.
County Commissioner Kevin White fired off an e-mail Thursday morning to County Administrator Pat Bean, asking for an investigation of whether any public funds have been spent at the Safari Wild property.
Bean scheduled a meeting with the county attorney that afternoon to devise a strategy.
And Mayor Pam Iorio sent Salisbury a strongly worded letter, detailing her "expectations," which said the zoo must sever its ties with Safari Wild, reclaim any money it has paid the corporation, and take back its animals.
"No zoo animals should be moved off-site onto private property in the future without written approval from the City," she wrote.
Iorio's letter notes that the city water department owns over 400 acres in Thonotosassa that the zoo might be able to use. And she wondered why the zoo hadn't asked the city or county for help first.
She said the city's representative on the 38-member full zoo board, Santiago Corrada, should have a seat on the zoo's more powerful six-member executive committee.
As a member of the larger zoo board, Corrada said he didn't know about zoo's structures at Safari Wild.
"The mayor has offered some solid suggestions, many of which are already in motion," Salisbury said Thursday night. "I look forward to discussing with her further the offer of land."
The six-member executive board, which first entered into the relationship with Safari Wild, dissolved that tie in June.
The horses that grazed the Polk County pastures were sent back to the zoo, but the connection was not fully severed.
The chairman of the zoo's executive board, Fassil Gabremariam, is listed as an officer in the Safari Wild Conservation Foundation.
Salisbury said that nonprofit educational arm of the game park is inactive, and that Gabremariam stepped away from the group once the zoo board cut ties, although his name is still on its state records.
The zoo's bison are temporarily living at Safari Wild, moved out of the zoo to make room for its Gator Falls water flume ride. Until they find a new home, the zoo is paying Safari Wild $600 a month for boarding, which Salisbury says is a highly discounted rate.
And those structures the zoo built remain at Safari Wild, unused. Salisbury said he is awaiting results of an independent audit required by the zoo's executive board to determine if he'll move them or pay the zoo for them.
Bob Merritt, a member of the zoo's executive board, is overseeing the audit, and says that no improprieties have yet been found.
"We have nothing to hide," Salisbury said.
In addition to Safari Wild, Salisbury also lives on a game park in Dade City. He said he has brought some zoo animals onto his property who were stressed by construction. Some pigmy hippos lived there for several months.
Salisbury said the zoo board saw Safari Wild as an interim space, a place where horses, sore from their barns, could stretch their legs. Since Safari Wild hasn't opened, no guests have had access to the zoo's animals, he said.
The zoo has run out of room for its growing animal collection and is looking for an additional 2,000 acres, Salisbury said.
Tax money wouldn't be enough to make that happen, he said. The expansion will depend on private partners, who have the resources the zoo needs.
But, he said quickly, "not me."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.