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Published: Friday, 4/15/2005

Panel seeks input from zoo workers fearing retaliation

BY TAD VEZNER AND JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

A task force charged with examining recent controversies at the Toledo Zoo is trying hard to attract testimony from zoo employees they say fear reprisal - and they want the zoo board to stand behind them with a stated promise of protection.

But the zoo board said such protection should go without saying.

Time and again during yesterday's Lucas County task force meeting, members discussed ways of encouraging zoo employees to feel comfortable enough to speak with them both publicly and privately.

They said they'd received feedback from employees fearing retribution from administration and other staff.

"The key now is to start hearing from people," said Robert Reinbolt, co-chairman of the 14-member citizens task force created by county commissioners to examine animal care, finances, operations, and leadership at the zoo.

In late March, the task force asked zoo board members to issue a resolution stating that "retaliation from zoo management or staff will not be tolerated" in relation to their investigation.

Task force members said they had meant to discuss the resolution with board members who appeared before the investigatory group two weeks ago, but ran out of time.

When Mr. Reinbolt later sent an e-mail to zoo Executive Director William Dennler about the matter, he received a reply from Mr. Dennler saying that the board had discussed the resolution and "shortened it."

Removed was the portion stating that "retaliation from zoo management or staff will not be tolerated."

"Obviously, several [zoo board members] were concerned that it made it look like they normally do this to employees," Mr. Dennler stated in his e-mail.

"We want that to be part of the board resolution," task force co-chair Marty Skeldon said.

In an interview last night, zoo board president Stephen Staelin said his board considered such a resolution unnecessary and redundant.

"Our policies already very clearly state that we will not tolerate retribution, and we absolutely stand firmly behind it," Mr. Staelin said. He then read employment policy 2.2 from the zoo employee handbook: "employees who voice a complaint will not suffer reprisal."

In a further effort to get employees to come forward, the zoo task force will ask the zoo's administration to post a memo, signed by the Lucas County commissioners, giving contact information for the group and explaining its purpose.

Linnie Willis, chairman of the personnel subcommittee, said she also will work with the University of Toledo to draft a questionnaire to be distributed among all zoo staff in order to reach those who do not wish to come before the committee in person. They hope to have a representative from the university present at their meeting next Thursday.

Task force members also said members of the public wishing to address the group should contact them at least a week in advance by e-mail at zootaskforce@co.lucas.oh.us.

In addition to a university representative, the task force will ask Mr. Dennler and zoo chief operating officer Robert Harden to attend their next session.

The task force won't be the only group with a survey. A committee of the zoo's board notified all zoo employees yesterday that they will soon issue its own voluntary, anonymous poll asking about their experiences at the zoo.

Survey results will not only provide a report card for the entire zoo, but allow analyses of strengths and weaknesses in each department, said Tony Shelbourn, chairman of the committee, which was charged several weeks ago by the full board with examining the zoo's corporate culture.

"You can go to a department of six people, and the results that come out of that department will say our strengths are these, our weaknesses are these,'' Mr. Shelbourn said.

Such surveys can be real eye-openers, he added.

"We did them in the [United Kingdom]. I ran a business for Dana in the UK with 140 locations, 2,000 people. We thought we were the world's best communicators,'' he said. After an outside firm came through and surveyed employees, "We were red-faced."

Mr. Shelbourn said, "People are so intrigued by the survey, so intrigued by the results,'' that they can "get on a roll" and use the results to make critical improvements.

Mr. Shelbourn said that he hopes to start polling in several weeks and get results by the end of May. Zoo administrators will select a survey firm from a list of six candidates submitted by the board committee.

Contact Tad Vezner at:

tvezner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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