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Tampa zoo opens up its inner circle

TAMPA — Lowry Park Zoo officials who met Friday with Mayor Pam Iorio have agreed to measures aimed at providing the city more oversight of the zoo.

In October, the city's administrative representative, Santiago Corrada, will be placed on the executive committee of the zoo's board of trustees, which makes decisions for the zoo.

Corrada, already a member of the larger 38-member board of trustees, was unaware of the more powerful six-member board's transactions with zoo president Lex Salisbury's private, for-profit exotic animal park, Safari Wild.

Until news reports, he didn't know that Safari Wild's now-severed relationship with the zoo included:

• Ten acres of Safari Wild land where the zoo built two structures to hold animals and allowed its horses to graze.

• A loan agreement, now dissolved, that left three zoo rhinos in the care of Safari Wild and would have entitled Salisbury's venture to some of the rhinos' offspring.

• $600 rent to Safari Wild each month to temporarily care for five bison displaced by the new Gator Falls water flume ride.

Now, Corrada says, "I'm going to be involved in their major transactions and the businesses they perform." He said he'll work to make sure the full board gets to ratify all zoo decisions.

Last week, the mayor asked the zoo to acknowledge that the animals at the zoo, their offspring and all animals acquired by the zoo belong to the city of Tampa, per a 1988 lease agreement with the city for the zoo's land.

The issue was a point of contention at a meeting earlier this week, because zoo officials thought animal ownership was a gray area in the lease. Some endangered species technically belong to the state and national governments.

"We didn't see any point in fighting over a gray area," said executive committee member Bob Merritt. So the zoo agreed to give the city a full accounting of its animals on a regular basis and provided the first inventory Friday.

The zoo also agreed to an audit of the zoo's management and transactions, including those done with Safari Wild. A city audit team will conduct that investigation starting Monday.

The zoo will continue its own independent audit, but Merritt will no longer oversee it, since he has been nominated to step in as the zoo's new executive board chairman in October.

The zoo has named a "blue ribbon committee" to take over its audit, which will include government officials and "concerned individuals," Merritt said.

"We're confident that, in the end, the substance is going to come out that the individual transactions were in the best interest of the zoo," he said.

As a new executive committee chairman, Merritt said, he will expand the executive committee from six to up to nine members and include other government officials.

He will improve communication with the full board by creating 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.

"We really want to get past this stuff," Merritt said, "and back to running one of the best zoos in America."

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

Tampa zoo opens up its inner circle 09/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2008 6:13pm]

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