The negotiation deadlock between the nonprofit Sedgwick County Zoological Society and county government is bad for the community and its premier attraction. And the prospect of a Jan. 1 county takeover of the zoo’s day-to-day operations is just nutty.
Yet County Commission Chairman Jim Howell told The Eagle: “We’re moving toward an impasse that’s going to result in the termination of the operating agreement in November.”
And County Manager Michael Scholes warned in a July 7 letter to the society that rejecting one of the county’s proposals “will be cause to cease negotiations and pursue other alternatives.”
“Other alternatives”? Does the county really want to change the locks on the zoo and assume 24/7 responsibility for the care and feeding of 3,000 animals, including the six new elephants?
As it is, though, the chances of resolution don’t look promising. Insisting its share of the board mirror its contribution to the zoo’s budget, the county seeks to control 40 percent of the seats on the society’s board and executive committee, up from about 10 percent now.
But like all nonprofit boards, the society needs as many trustees as it can get who not only are committed to the cause but have the time, means and influence necessary to enable its success. That wouldn’t describe most political or staff appointees. And the more governmental the zoo’s governance looks, the harder it will be to attract private funds.
Nor is there any justification for a “non-disparagement clause” in the proposed operating agreement about the zoo director’s public statements, including a prohibition against doing anything to bring the county or society “unwanted or unfavorable publicity.” Even if the county is right – and the society wrong – about the constitutionality of such a gag rule on a public employee, it’s an insult to longtime director Mark Reed’s professionalism and another case of the county trying to pre-empt criticism and punish critics.
Plus, the county’s desired contract language “is inconsistent with any public-private partnerships in other U.S. zoos,” according to a June 29 letter to the county from the zoo board. The Sedgwick County Zoo’s story is one of effective, trustworthy management that has leveraged tens of millions of dollars in private support, and made the zoo a favorite destination for so many Kansas families.
Messing with that formula is no way to ensure the zoo’s continued success – or avoid bad publicity.