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A Times Editorial

Whose rhino is this?

The standoff between the city of Tampa and the Lowry Park Zoo needs to end. Zoo president Lex Salisbury cannot remain both president of the tax-supported zoo and the owner of a private, for-profit zoo he is building in Polk County. The dual roles are riddled with conflicts. And the zoo's governing board needs new faces and a refresher on its responsibilities. This never would have happened with a board that was adequately informed, accountable and open with the public.

Salisbury had the chance the past few days to contain the political fallout of his ethical conflicts and to renew the public's faith that he could balance his day job with the business of developing a private game park one county over. But he has shown more interest in preserving his special arrangement, which was the worry all along. While Salisbury said he would not again house zoo animals at his game park, called Safari Wild, he has blown off the affair as a "perception problem" and still is stalling. Until the newspapers broke it, Mayor Pam Iorio was unaware the zoo, which sits on city land and receives millions of public dollars, transferred some of its animals to Salisbury's park. She also did not know his park had a side deal that granted Salisbury an offspring of the zoo's white rhinos.

The city's lease with the zoo clearly states that zoo animals are "assets of the city" and requires the zoo to provide an annual inventory of them. The zoo disagrees the animals are city property. It said it would provide any report the lease requires but is concerned by the mayor's request to add a city official to the zoo's executive committee, a subset of the board that calls the shots.

Zoo leaders need an attitude adjustment. They should be doing all they can to repair the mayor's trust in them and their public image. While most of the zoo's $20-million budget is privately generated, it receives money from the city and county for both operations and capital improvements; last year, that totaled $2.7-million. The strong and continuing government support is what enables the zoo to present a stable and positive face to donors. It cannot afford to alienate the mayor or taxpayers, especially by being in the wrong. The zoo deserves public money and local government's support as a tourist destination, but it needs to act responsibly. Salisbury needs to choose his calling. The board chairman needs to go and the group needs new leadership. Beyond adding a city official to the executive committee, the full zoo board needs to get more engaged. The decisions that got Salisbury and the zoo in trouble should not have been made by such a small, insular group.

Whose rhino is this? 09/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 6:09pm]
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