Sedgwick County seeks to have more voting power on the nonprofit board that runs the county zoo, according to a draft operating agreement.
The proposal would more than triple the county’s share of votes on the Sedgwick County Zoological Society board, a nonprofit board responsible for managing the zoo.
It also calls for guidelines for the zoo director’s public statements as part of an effort to avoid “unwanted or unfavorable publicity.”
A copy of the proposed agreement was obtained by The Eagle after the Sedgwick County Commission voted May 18 to give itself and the zoo board more time to negotiate it.
The operating agreement governs the roles of the county and the zoo society in the public-private partnership that runs the zoo. The land and buildings are owned by the county and leased by the society, which runs day-to-day operations. The society is responsible for the zoo’s animals.
I think with any election you’re going to have change and I think in this case, we’re working on what that next agreement is going to look like based off of the recent change to the commission.
Sedgwick County Manager Michael Scholes
A separate zoo funding agreement with the county also is being negotiated. The previous agreement was canceled last year after a new conservative majority on the County Commission raised concerns about it. That majority emerged after the 2014 election.
“I don’t think that it’s possible to go throughout the entire relationship without ever having change,” County Manager Michael Scholes said.
“They’re in a public-private partnership. I think that that is not the ordinary. I just think they have been very lucky it (the operating agreement) hasn’t changed,” he said.
“Probably everything was doing well, but I think with any election you’re going to have change,” he said. “I think in this case, we’re working on what that next agreement is going to look like based off of the recent change to the commission.”
Scholes said he hopes the two sides will reach an agreement in the next month or so.
“I want to protect that long-standing relationship that really the county and the Zoological Society has enjoyed over those last four decades,” he added.
But some commissioners are worried about that relationship fraying because of the county’s proposals.
“This has created a tenseness that I haven’t experienced before in my years up here,” Commissioner Dave Unruh said.
Larger share on zoo board
The Sedgwick County Zoological Society board is made up of about 35 people, including three from the county. Scholes, assistant county manager Ron Holt and chairman Jim Howell are now on the board. Holt sits on its executive committee, which is roughly 10 people who decide what the full board will vote on.
The proposed agreement would give the county voting rights on the zoo board and executive committee “proportional to the county’s prior year share of funding of the zoo’s overall operating budget.”
The county’s current $5.6 million contribution to the zoo represents about 40 percent of its operating budget. The remaining $8.5 million comes from donations, memberships, fundraisers and ticket sales.
So board members representing the county would make up about two-fifths of the total zoo board.
9 percent of the zoo board made up of county staff or officials (approximate)
10 percent of the executive committee made up of county staff or officials (approximate)
40 percent proposed voting rights for the county on both groups
Board president Mark DeVries said most issues the board considers are not contentious.
“The stuff that we vote is just like ‘do we spend $10,000 to fix that HVAC unit?’ or ‘do we buy a replacement golf cart for the gardening department?’” DeVries said. “That’s the kind of stuff.”
But the board also makes big decisions, like moving forward with building the new elephant exhibit and importing elephants from Africa.
‘Expectations regarding…public statements’
The current operating agreement outlines the position of zoo director, who is an employee of Sedgwick County. Mark Reed is the current zoo director.
The draft agreement includes new language that would give the county or the society the power to fire the director without the consent of the other. Those reasons for termination would be gross negligence, a felony conviction, substance abuse and the “intentional non-performance of duties.”
Under the draft agreement, the zoo director would “refrain from any action which is intended, or would reasonably be expected, to harm the society or the county.”
County, Society and Director agree that Director will refrain from any action which is intended, or would reasonably be expected, to harm the Society or the County or the Society’s or the County’s respective reputations, or which would reasonably be expected to lead to unwanted or unfavorable publicity for either the Society or the County.
Draft zoo operating agreement obtained by The Eagle
The proposal would restrict the zoo director from saying anything that would hurt “the society’s or the county’s respective reputations, or which would reasonably be expected to lead to unwanted or unfavorable publicity for either the society or the county.”
“County and Society will mutually establish clear written guidelines and expectations regarding the Director’s public statements regarding County or Society and such guidelines will be incorporated into Director’s responsibilities and evaluation,” the draft says.
If the zoo director violated those guidelines, either the county or the zoo board could start termination proceedings.
A dispute resolution committee would be responsible for resolving any disagreement over firing the zoo director based on the public statement guidelines.
‘Get a majority support’
The county manager’s office is negotiating with the Zoological Society on behalf of the County Commission.
“Commissioners, as a whole, gave it to me to solve and that’s what I’m trying to do for all five commissioners,” Scholes said. “I’m trying to negotiate a fair operating agreement.”
Scholes did not want to talk about specific changes to the agreement or the reasons behind the changes.
I don’t think that it’s possible to go throughout the entire relationship without ever having change.
Sedgwick County Manager Michael Scholes
“I don’t want to get into who said it or who is pushing for what or what items there are,” Scholes said. “I picked a few items that I thought could satisfy and get a majority support of the commissioners.”
He said he wants to focus on “maintaining dialogue and keeping it as simplistic as possible.”
Scholes said the process hasn’t been rushed and that negotiations have been deliberative and collaborative. He said it’s reasonable to expect some changes because the operating agreement hasn’t changed since 2005.
The zoo board would largely like to keep the existing operating agreement.
“The current system has worked very well for a very long time,” DeVries said.
‘Are we running the zoo?’
Chairman Jim Howell said he didn’t want to comment about the change and “short circuit the process.”
“To negotiate something like this is obviously a lengthy process,” Howell added. “I don’t really want to cause trouble by speaking to the media and adding to that.”
My general feeling is I think the taxpayer interest needs to be represented on the boards where tax funds are being spent. If there’s a significant taxpayer expenditure, there should be a significant taxpayer representation.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn, whose western Sedgwick County district includes the zoo, said he’s not directly involved in negotiations. But he did share his thoughts on the ideas related to the proposed changes.
“My general feeling is I think the taxpayer interest needs to be represented on the boards where tax funds are being spent,” Peterjohn said. “If there’s a significant taxpayer expenditure, there should be a significant taxpayer representation.”
“I think the idea of not having bad publicity for either the county or the society would be good, but I don’t have a copy of what you’ve got there,” Peterjohn told The Eagle about the public statement guidelines for zoo director.
Commissioner Tim Norton, who favors renewing the current operating agreement, said the zoo board is already responsive to the county’s input.
“What if we go to 60 percent? Now, all of a sudden, are we running the zoo?” Norton asked. “I don’t know that we need to run roughshod over the zoological board by having a higher percentage of voting power.”
This has created a tenseness that I haven’t experienced before in my years up here.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh
Unruh questioned whether Reed’s public statements have ever been derogatory to the society or the County Commission.
“He’s advocated strongly for what he thought was good for the zoo and it seems like that’s appropriate for the zoo director to do,” Unruh said.
Reed did not want to comment on the negotiations. Neither did commissioner Richard Ranzau.
The Zoological Society will send the county a written response to the most recent agreement draft in the next couple of weeks. Under the new timeline, either the county or the society have until Nov. 18 to notify the other that they want to cancel the existing operating agreement.