The city of Tampa rightly faulted Lex Salisbury last week for the Lowry Park Zoo chief's financial and ethical conflicts. Common sense dictates that you do not collect five figures a month to run a tax-supported zoo and simultaneously develop a for-profit exotic animal park of your own. The zoo's governing board should fire Salisbury when it meets this week. It also needs to explain how it allowed such intolerable conduct to continue for years under its watch.
Salisbury has said repeatedly in the months since the scandal broke that he did not profit from his dealings with the zoo, and he reiterated that claim Monday. But the findings of a city audit released last week contribute to the picture of a freewheeling culture in the zoo's executive offices. Salisbury's $339,000 annual compensation package is excessive enough. But the audit found that Salisbury took animals and materials that belonged to the zoo to his private residence, the BA Ranch, and to the theme park he is building in Polk County, Safari Wild. It found almost 300 instances in which zoo animals were donated, loaned, traded or sold to Salisbury. Auditors said Salisbury admitted taking wrought-iron benches and landscaping donated to the zoo for use at his private property and allegedly received utility poles donated to the zoo. His pets were reportedly boarded at the zoo and zoo medical staff provided care for Salisbury's animals at his ranch and animal park.
Auditors also found thousands of dollars in charges for food, travel and other expenses, including — over just a two-year period — $12,700 to local restaurants and $400 for Starbucks coffee. The zoo's chief financial officer said he "did not question the charges and may not have even looked at them."
A board with a grip on its responsibilities would not have tolerated such practices. But there appeared to be no check on Salisbury's actions. The audit found the zoo had no ethics policy, few controls over purchases and bonuses, and a weak system for authorizing animal trades between Salisbury and the zoo. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said the zoo board should fire Salisbury and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement should investigate. The mixing of zoo and the zoo president's for-profit business is a "blight on an otherwise great asset," she said.
The zoo sits on city land north of downtown and operates under a lease with the city. Tampa and Hillsborough County have also spent millions of tax dollars in recent years for capital improvements and operations at the zoo. The mayor stepped in because the same board that gave Salisbury carte blanche refused to clean up a scandal it had a hand in making.
The zoo board, which meets this week, should move quickly to replace Salisbury. He has done an enormous job over 20 years in making the zoo a top-notch and popular attraction. But the zoo needs a chief executive with business sense who can repair its image. The board also needs to reassess its role. It failed to ensure the zoo was professionally run and has lost some sight of its educational mission. Board members, who initially defended Salisbury with a wall of silence, should realize this facility is not one man's creation or one board's toy. The board can start by making an immediate break with the Salisbury era and reforming its somnolent ways.