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What's best for Lowry Park Zoo is at stake in this fight

Tampa's zoo chief to those who want him fired: It's on.

Last week came a blistering 60-page city audit that says Lowry Park Zoo president Lex Salisbury took animals and property from the taxpayer-supported zoo to his own safari park business and private ranch.

Not good.

The audit also details other assorted potential conflicts and eyebrow-raisers, among them a side trip to Paris and $12,700 in local restaurant charges on the zoo's tab.

Also not good.

This has some officials, including the mayor, looking for Salisbury's ouster as well as law enforcement scrutiny of his zoo-related doings. Meanwhile, the zoo's accreditation by a national group hangs in the balance.

This week, Salisbury fought back. (Actually, his lawyer fought back. Salisbury is apparently saving his voice for the zoo's governing board at a meeting tomorrow, when he makes a last-ditch bid to defend himself and save his job.)

At a news conference Monday, attorney Robert McKee pointed out that Mayor Pam Iorio used the term "Rhinogate." He said the audit came with a built-in bias.

In truth, the mayor stayed largely out of things during the review. The idea that when she said "Rhinogate," city auditors actually heard, "Bring me Salisbury's head on a platter!" seems a most unlikely reach.

Though McKee offered explanations for some of the allegations, the picture still isn't pretty. At best, we have a messy mixing of public duty with private enterprise and a lack of oversight — not a good way to reassure the citizenry all is right at the zoo.

For perspective, some history: Salisbury hired on 21 years ago to a sad city zoo of a few dozen caged animals "that they were feeding hot dogs and hamburgers to," as McKee put it.

Today, Lowry Park is a well-regarded 56-acre zoological garden and one of the nicer perks of living here.

Maybe that kind of proud legacy, coupled with a lack of accountability in a public-private enterprise, could give a man the notion he could do pretty much anything he wanted as long as he believed his heart and motives were pure.

The audit says Salisbury's dealings may have cost the zoo something like $200,000.

Salisbury contends his housing of animals for the zoo and loaning of animals to the zoo is worth twice that.

See, here's where that oversight would have come in handy.

Even if he can offer a full and satisfactory explanation for every single problem outlined in that report, can Salisbury survive in what will have to be a new zoo? One built on transparency, set processes, checks and balances and a lot of that aforementioned accountability?

Given history, that seems doubtful.

Despite the fight-back tone of the news conference, McKee said yes, Salisbury would step down if the board insisted. Salisbury himself stopped short of that in a letter handed out Monday. "If it is determined that any error in judgment I may have made resulted in detriment to the zoo," he wrote, "I will make amends."

You hope that when the fight is done, amends means closing a bad chapter in zoo history. You hope the end will be not about legacy or personality or anyone's empire, but what's best for the zoo: a new start.

What's best for Lowry Park Zoo is at stake in this fight 12/16/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 12:37pm]
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