The line is pretty simple: The president of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo should not mix business between the zoo and a private safari game park he is opening. Yet Lex Salisbury still wants to qualify the ethics of what he did. The governing board that should have prevented this conflict failed its responsibility, and this is a good time to consider new leadership there.
The taxpayer-supported zoo built two barns — one for horses, another for birds and primates — on a 258-acre game park Salisbury owns in Polk County. Salisbury envisions that his park, which is called Safari Wild and has not opened, as an Africa-themed attraction where guests can get up close with exotic animals. Safari Wild leased 10 acres of that land to the zoo for free, as a place for zoo animals to roam. The zoo built the two structures and fenced some of the property. In June, the governing board's executive committee dissolved those ties out of ethical concerns. But zoo bison live there temporarily, and the zoo is paying Safari Wild $600 a month for boarding.
Salisbury said he is not making money on the arrangement but that is beside the point. His dual roles as zoo president and developer of a private game attraction pose serious and ongoing conflicts: How does the zoo's mission differ from that of the game park? How would Salisbury balance his vision for the zoo with his personal plans for Safari Wild? Does having his foot planted in both raise ethical constraints that could bar natural synergies between the two — whether on marketing, exhibits or educational and conservation programs?
The zoo is a wonderful attraction, and while Salisbury has his detractors, he also has made Lowry Park a desirable and high-quality destination for children and adults, visitors and residents alike. Still, while the zoo plays up its private-sector support, the fact remains that its sponsorship by local government is the foundation for its success. The zoo sits on city land and has received millions of dollars in recent years for both operations and capital projects.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is right that a city administrator should have a seat on the executive committee. She should not stop there. The zoo chairman needs to go, the executive committee needs new faces and Salisbury needs greater oversight. This is not the way to run a big, growing business that feeds at the public trough.