Zoo giveaway

The Seattle City Council hands over zoo to private group.

AS EXPECTED, the Seattle City Council gave away the zoo last Monday.

But the city's proposed 20-year agreement to transfer the city zoo to the control of the private, nonprofit Woodland Park Zoological Society became a rare year-end political football at City Hall—where late December is usually reserved for holiday parties and staff vacations.

What's the rush? Insiders say the effort to force a Dec. 17 City Council vote on the zoo agreement served two purposes. First, it allowed outgoing Mayor Paul Schell to count the zoo agreement as an addition to his modest legacy as a single-term chief executive. Secondly, it bypasses any serious scrutiny by the incoming Greg Nickels administration (although the Mayor-elect has publicly supported the zoo transfer).

The agreement constitutes a 20-year ground lease (with the option for 10-year extensions) on the 92-acre zoo property, located just north of the Fremont neighborhood. Purchased for park uses from millionaire Guy Phinney in 1899, Woodland Park's first zoo animals arrived about four years later. Since then, the zoo has grown to include some 1,000 animals representing 335 species. It runs renowned conservation programs in 22 countries, employs 388 workers, and is visited annually by just over 1 million people. Seattle's zoo compares well to many of the better large public zoos in the United States. Now the city has quickly transferred this jewel into private hands.

Activists argue that the last-minute rush to approve the zoo agreement is another case of the city being overly eager to accommodate private interests at the expense of public protections. Chris Leman, a longtime critic of the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, notes that the city allowed zoo society lawyers to create the early drafts of the agreement. "And, as a result, it basically gives away the store."

It's hard to argue with Leman—several concerns he raised in an e-mail document were incorporated into the agreement through the efforts of council members Nick Licata, Judy Nicastro, and Peter Steinbrueck.

Licata says he literally went down a list of recommendations made by Leman and fellow activist Jorgan Bader, "and I'd say we adopted more than half of them. It's not a perfect agreement, and if I had my way it would be tighter—but I don't get my way around here that often."

Among the changes incorporated due to Leman's concerns: a public disclosure provision to give citizens access to animal- care information, the addition of a public comment period to zoo society board meetings, and advance meeting notification requirements. Trickier issues include public disclosure of zoo society finances (the society wants to protect proprietary information such as donor lists and grant applications) and the extension of the city ethics code to zoo society employees.

THE PUSH TO privatize the Woodland Park Zoo is the local manifestation of a national trend. According to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, 83 of its 201 member institutions are under private, nonprofit operation. Zoo and aquarium privatization has become increasingly common over the last decade.

The underlying intentions are good ones: to enable zoos to become self- sustaining, and therefore less of a drain on scarce government funds, and to protect zoos against funding cuts in times of shrinking municipal budgets.

Cutting some ties with government empowers zoos to pursue higher levels of private funding, says Dr. Barbara Baker, head of the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, which privatized in 1994. Donors are concerned about giving large sums of money to a government- operated zoo for fear the money intended for animals would end up paving a road or lining the pocket of some bureaucrat.

David Towne, director of the Woodland Park Zoological Society, says donors also fear their funds will merely end up displacing public dollars. "It's amazing how many corporations and foundations are very concerned about giving money to the society because of the suspicion that it removes the city's responsibilities to continue its obligations [to the zoo]," he says. The proposed zoo agreement locks in city government's funding support, including $5.5 million annually (increased for inflation) and millions more in one-time funding.

Does zoo privatization really get the money train rolling? Sometimes. The Pittsburgh Zoo's Baker says her institution has gone from a $3.1 million budget and 45 employees in its first year of private operation (1994) to a current budget of $10 million and more than 120 employees.

Meanwhile, the troubled San Francisco Zoo, which also privatized in 1994, has been a financial black hole. According to stories by the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Martin Espinoza and Savannah Blackwell, that zoo ran at a deficit its first four years and actually saw fund-raising drop over that same period. (One success story: After privatization, director David Anderson saw his salary rise from $80,000 to $121,000.)

Towne says the difference is that Seattle would be transferring control to a strong, well-run zoo society. Since taking over as zoo director in 1984 (he retired last year and moved to the zoo society), Towne says he encouraged the growth of the society with an eye toward shifting to nonprofit operation. "I've always had a philosophy that government can't do everything," he says. "If you really want to have frosting on your cake, that really has to come through efficiencies or private support that can only come through nonprofits."

When he arrived, the zoo society was a social organization with one annual fund-raising event, he says. "Since that time, it's generated $30 million to $40 million in private support." The zoo society, not the city, actually employs 159 of the 388 total zoo employees. "It has grown to the point where it is capable of taking over the management," says Towne.

Current city zoo workers will be given the opportunity to transfer to other jobs if they don't wish to leave government employment. The major sticking point for city workers is the transfer between their generous city pensions and the zoo society's less-impressive retirement plan. Towne says some city workers nearing retirement age may be allowed to retain their employment status, but most will have to make the transition. An employee transition plan isn't included in the current proposed agreement—those provisions will be finalized over the next eight months.

Pittsburgh's Baker argues that success takes good work on both the part of the zoo society and local government. "I think it's more a test of the partnership," she says.

Leman isn't so sure about how equal Seattle's partnership will be. He has his doubts about the final transfer agreement, noting that crucial details in the document were still being negotiated the Friday before the council vote. "They've given a whole new meeting to the words 'Christmas rush,'" he says.

jbush@seattleweekly.com

 
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