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A Times Editorial

Zoo saga ends on a low note

It seemed preordained that the Lex Salisbury drama would end on a low note. The former chief executive officer of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo caught (another) huge break last week. Yet, he could not refrain from pointing fingers in a written statement released by his attorney. It was a tacky parting shot from someone who enjoyed a sweet ride for a long time. And it was a teachable moment for the zoo board.

Salisbury quit in December after a blistering city audit found he had mingled zoo and personal business. Auditors said Salisbury took animals and materials that belonged to the zoo to his private ranch and a private safari-style theme park he was building in Polk County. Anyone could see the conflicts between Salisbury's $339,000 job as head of the city's zoo and his role in developing a for-profit attraction on the side. Auditors found more than 200 instances in which zoo animals were donated, loaned or traded to Salisbury. They said the zoo had paid to construct fences, barns and shade structures on Salisbury's property and that — all told — he owed the zoo more than $200,000.

But in a settlement announced last week, the zoo's governing board bumped that figure down to $2,212, or about a penny on the dollar. Zoo board members said Salisbury counterclaimed for roughly $50,000 in what he said were boarding costs for zoo animals housed on his property. The settlement also requires Salisbury to pay to dismantle the structures Lowry Park built on his property and to return them to the zoo.

Clearly, the zoo board had no stomach for continuing the fight with Salisbury. This settlement was more about damage control and public relations than it was about costs and accountability. That's why Salisbury's statement Monday was so laughable. He said the audit was not designed to seek the truth "but rather to 'get Lex.' " This from an employee whose board never lifted a finger to challenge his misconduct?

It is worth remembering the board moved against Salisbury only after Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio expressed disgust. Salisbury was given the chance to plead for his job at a private meeting with board members guarded by armed deputies. In short, the closing chapter of the Salisbury saga is as much a PR disaster as his ethics and business dealings. Blame a tone-deaf board for that.

Zoo saga ends on a low note 08/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 7:20pm]
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