Politics & Government

Zoo board, county gridlocked in contract negotiations

Meerkats line up for visitors to the Sedgwick County Zoo on May 11, 2016, in Wichita.
Meerkats line up for visitors to the Sedgwick County Zoo on May 11, 2016, in Wichita. Eagle file photo

Sedgwick County and the Zoological Society are sharply divided over a county proposal that would boost the county’s voting power on the nonprofit zoo board and set guidelines for the zoo director’s public statements.

The county already has control over the management of its employees and veto rights on capital projects at the Sedgwick County Zoo, the zoo board contended in a June 29 letter to the county.

“The proposed language is inconsistent with any public/private partnerships in other U.S. zoos and would have a high likelihood of bringing county politics to bear on zoo operations,” according to the letter.

The proposed language is inconsistent with any public/private partnerships in other U.S. zoos and would have a high likelihood of bringing county politics to bear on zoo operations.

Sedgwick County Zoological Society letter obtained by The Eagle

The operating agreement governs the roles of the county and the zoo board in the public-private partnership that runs the zoo. The county owns the land and buildings and leases them to the society, which oversees day-to-day operations and is responsible for the zoo’s animals. The existing agreement was reached in 2005.

Either side can cancel the operating agreement for the next calendar year by Nov. 18, which would essentially let county government assume control of the zoo.

County Manager Michael Scholes, in a July 7 letter obtained by The Eagle, wrote that the agreement’s successful past should not “foreclose the opportunity or need for change.”

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“It is my job to find a workable solution to the impasse in which our organizations find themselves,” Scholes wrote. “One that will reflect the will of the current Sedgwick County commission majority and have as little impact on the county’s working partnership with the Zoological Society as possible.”

Scholes said the Zoological Society was rejecting the county’s proposals largely without offering alternatives and “turning what is supposed to be a negotiation into a brick wall.”

9% of the zoo board made up of county staff or officials (approximate)

10% of the executive committee made up of county staff or officials (approximate)

40% proposed voting rights for the county on both groups

“Quite frankly, this cannot continue,” he wrote.

County Commission Chairman Jim Howell said the contract the county seeks is “very reasonable.”

“We’ve given up a tremendous amount of points that we’d like to have had in the operating agreement,” Howell said. “We’re moving toward an impasse that’s going to result in the termination of the operating agreement in November. And that’s unfortunate.”

Board membership

The county’s proposal would give it about 40 percent of the seats on the zoo board and its executive committee, up from about 10 percent. The county contributes about 40 percent of the zoo’s annual operating budget.

The zoo board says it has raised millions in “balance sheet assets” from private sources and donated to the public.

“This ability to raise private funds for investment in a publicly-owned institution would be seriously curtailed with the proposed changes,” the letter reads.

Zoological Society president Mark DeVries said in an interview that the zoo has benefited from fundraising because the society and the zoo have a public-private partnership.

You can’t raise funds for the highway department or things like that that are county departments. The closer we look like that, the harder it is for fundraising, contributions (and) volunteers.

Sedgwick County Zoological Society president Mark DeVries

“You can’t raise funds for the highway department or things like that that are county departments,” DeVries said. “The closer we look like that, the harder it is for fundraising, contributions (and) volunteers.”

Scholes called it irrelevant if the proposed structure is not in line with public-private partnerships for other U.S. zoos, writing that “every contractual relationship is unique.”

He said it was the will of the commission majority that the county be “more appropriately represented.”

The citizens of Sedgwick County have elected the current commissioners to be their representative voice in matters just like these. Indeed, this is the reality of a public-private partnership. By trying to muffle the commission’s voice, the Zoological Society is, in reality, muffling the voice of the citizens.

Sedgwick County Manager’s Office letter obtained by The Eagle

“The citizens of Sedgwick County have elected the current commissioners to be their representative in matters just like these,” Scholes wrote. “By trying to muffle the commission’s voice, the Zoological Society is, in reality, muffling the voice of the citizens.”

“Let’s be honest about what this request really changes: likely nothing,” Scholes added. “Issues before the board rarely receive anything less than unanimity.”

The zoo board’s rejection of any increase in the county’s voting power would be cause to “cease negotiations and pursue other alternatives,” Scholes wrote.

Debate over free speech

A separate section of the proposed operating agreement would set up “clear written guidelines and expectations regarding the director’s public statements.” It would prohibit the zoo director from doing anything to bring the county or the society “unwanted or unfavorable publicity.”

Mark Reed is the current zoo director and is considered an employee of the county.

The zoo board said that change to the operating agreement would be “clearly not in the public interest.”

“We are concerned that the proposed language is likely a violation of the First Amendment right to protected free speech,” the letter says, pointed to two U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the free speech rights of public employees.

“We want to make sure that our director’s free speech rights aren’t infringed and yet the county’s rights as an employer are respected,” DeVries said. “I think we need to clarify the proposed language to ensure that is the case.”

The current majority is looking more at trying to make sure no one ever says anything bad about them.

Sedgwick County Commission candidate David Dennis

The zoo board’s letter said the guidelines would be hard to enforce and would make the zoo director “reluctant to identify issues that could be corrected.”

Scholes countered that the county is not trying to limit the zoo director’s speech as a private citizen, but is trying to provide “some accountability for our own employee.”

“Public employees speaking in their official capacity do not enjoy the full extent of this freedom,” Scholes wrote. “The zoo director is a Sedgwick County employee, a public employee. With that position comes certain responsibility and certain restrictions.”

“Can it really be said the Society would be amenable to a zoo director’s continued employment if he or she was consistently making disparaging comments about your organization?” Scholes asked. “Likely not.”

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Commission candidates disagree

The operating agreement has become a campaign issue in the commission race for District 3, which includes the zoo.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn, the incumbent, says he’s glad the county is looking at changes to the operating agreement.

“Taxation without adequate representation isn’t as bad as taxation with no representation but it’s not what it should be,” he said about the move to boost the county’s presence on the board.

“In terms of what they can say within their job concerning their employer, there are obviously some policies in terms of how we can proceed,” he added.

Taxation without adequate representation isn’t as bad as taxation with no representation but it’s not what it should be.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn

David Dennis, Peterjohn’s Republican primary challenger, has been critical of the changes, saying the county is trying to “put a muzzle” on the zoo. A pro-Dennis mailer over the weekend accused Peterjohn of “politicizing and micromanaging the zoo.”

“I think the current majority is looking more at trying to make sure no one ever says anything bad about them,” Dennis said in an interview. “I don’t understand why you would be so concerned. They’re all elected officials. They ought to understand that some people are going to agree with them and some people aren’t.”

Goddard Mayor Marcey Gregory, who is running as an independent candidate, called the proposed changes to the board’s makeup “overreaching.”

“They (the zoo board) need to be able to have a sense of autonomy,” Gregory said. “The county already does have sufficient oversight.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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