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Lowry Park Zoo board approves new policies; its chairman resigns

TAMPA — The Lowry Park Zoo's board of directors adopted a strong conflict-of-interest policy Friday, one of more than 40 changes prompted by last year's scandal that led to the resignation of its president, Lex Salisbury.

Other new policies will create a hotline that staff members can use to report concerns, and more detailed procedures for financial transactions.

The policies are the zoo's response to a 60-page city audit commissioned by Mayor Pam Iorio that shed light on flaws in its culture and holes in its business practices.

"The zoo was so successful that everyone involved got a little sloppy on how they administered it," said board chairman Bob Merritt. "That's not going to happen again."

Merritt, along with the zoo's new temporary director, helped shepherd many of the changes.

But at the meeting Friday, where the zoo took some of its first steps to bounce back from the most tumultuous months in its history, Merritt resigned.

• • •

Sitting across from Salisbury one day in December, Merritt did what he calls one of the hardest tasks of his life. He told the man who had spent two decades building the zoo, his friend for half that time, that the board wanted his resignation.

Things had gotten too ugly.

The city audit concluded that Salisbury had blurred the lines between his roles at the zoo and his private ventures — his residential ranch in Pasco County and Safari Wild, his yet-to-open exotic animal park in Lakeland.

He had cost the zoo $200,000, the audit said. He had loaned animals to the zoo and been given animals that belonged to the zoo.

As the reports surfaced, as the zoo's accreditation was suspended, as the mayor called for Salisbury's firing, Merritt already wanted to resign.

He had personal issues to deal with, and his volunteer position on the board was taking 50, sometimes 60 hours a week.

But he didn't want people to incorrectly link his resignation to Salisbury. And he didn't want to abandon the zoo.

"My family has been asking me for three months to resign," he said. "But I told them I felt I had a moral commitment to lead through the reorganization."

Now, he said, it's time for him — and the zoo — to move on.

• • •

Next week, the zoo will present its changes to the city as responses to its audit. One of the biggest is that the zoo now has a conflict of interest policy — "a very, very strict policy," Merritt said.

It requires all possible conflicts to be disclosed to the board.

Also new is a zoo hotline that will allow staffers to voice concerns without fears of retaliation, addressing what auditors found to be a culture of intimidation at the zoo.

The zoo addressed unbudgeted expenditures, and the level at which they needed to be approved. And zoo officials are working to evaluate the appropriate level of compensation for its next president.

Salisbury made $339,000 per year.

The zoo's board will engage a recruiting firm to find its next president, Merritt said. People within the zoo will be encouraged to apply.

But still unresolved is the $200,000 the city audit says Salisbury owes the zoo. Salisbury has said he thinks he saved the zoo more than $400,000.

Auditors are still evaluating the situation.

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

Lowry Park Zoo board approves new policies; its chairman resigns 01/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 12:05am]

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