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A Times Editorial

Zoo chief gone; problems aren't

Lex Salisbury resigned Thursday as president of Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo after a 21-year career.

Lex Salisbury resigned Thursday as president of Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo after a 21-year career.

Lex Salisbury lost his job as president of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo because he mingled zoo and personal business and abused his position. The board that allowed that to happen finally woke up to its responsibilities and forced him out last week. But it moved so slowly and in such bad form that it was made plain that the zoo's problems go well beyond Salisbury. The city of Tampa and Hillsborough County should not contribute another dime to the zoo until the board adopts several reforms. Among them:

• Open the meetings. The zoo fancies itself as a nonprofit so beleaguered by competitive forces it cannot open its board meetings to the public. This is ridiculous. The zoo is by every measure a public asset. The city owns the land and the animals and allows the zoo to operate under a lease agreement. The zoo has received more than $12-million in local tax money this decade alone to expand, and the city also provides $450,000 a year in operating subsidies. If Tampa General Hospital, another nonprofit, can manage to thrive in a competitive environment with a board that meets publicly, so can the zoo.

• Add public oversight. Despite owning the zoo, the city hears from Lowry Park only when it needs money. That relationship needs to change. The city and county should review the zoo's budget annually. The city, as the property owner, also should sign off on any animal transfers. The animals Salisbury traded between the zoo and his private properties are no different than any other publicly owned assets. The zoo should give an annual accounting to both the city and county governments.

• Change the board. Salisbury had free rein because the board is filled with familiar names and big money instead of people who bring expertise in business, conservation or government to the table. It was galling enough, after a stinging city audit last week chronicled the depth of Salisbury's misconduct, that the board allowed him Thursday to appeal for his job behind closed doors. But moving the meeting across town and inside a hotel guarded by armed deputies was a mind-boggling response to this public relations crisis. Now more than ever, the board needs to appreciate the public's stake in the zoo. Chairman Bob Merritt blew an opportunity to send an important message.

The zoo has established audit, governance and compensation committees in the wake of the Salisbury scandal. It expanded the board's executive committee to include a representative of the mayor. Those changes will make the zoo more accountable. But they should already have been in place. The board needed to oust Salisbury; now it needs to change the culture that enabled his misconduct in the first place.

Zoo chief gone; problems aren't 12/21/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 24, 2008 10:14am]
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