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Published: Thursday, 4/28/2005

7 zookeepers address citizens task force

BY TAD VEZNER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sheri Caldwell, director of human resources, listens as Toledo Zoo board member Tony Shelbourn holds up a draft copy of a survey the board wants to distribute to employees. Sheri Caldwell, director of human resources, listens as Toledo Zoo board member Tony Shelbourn holds up a draft copy of a survey the board wants to distribute to employees.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

After weeks of waiting, the citizens task force in charge of examining Toledo Zoo operations heard yesterday from employees with heavy stakes and strong opinions regarding recent controversies at the zoo.

In a session closed to the public, the task force heard one by one from seven keepers in the zoo s mammal department. Robin Gould, Char Petiniot, Mary Beth McConnell, Donna Harrison, Suzanne Husband, Jenny Roesler, and Thomas Benner met individually with the task force.

I m very pleased that we re starting to hear from employees, said task force chairman Robert Reinbolt, who said the session was closed to discuss personnel issues. We re encouraged by the honesty we re getting. It s helping us get an understanding of both sides of the issues.

The task force was created in late March by Lucas County commissioners following the firing of zoo head veterinarian Tim Reichard and the public outcry that ensued. Commissioners charged the 14-member task force with a review of zoo finances and operations, including animal care, culminating in a report to be issued within 100 days.

In recent weeks, task force members lamented the lack of direct testimony from zoo employees and worried that they would have to rely largely upon written documentation. Until yesterday, the task force had only interviewed Dr. Reichard, past and present officers of the zoo s board of directors, and zoo executive director William Dennler.

Last night, they had the chance to question those far from the top though zoo keepers that testified refused to comment on the record on what was said during the meeting.

Communications, that s one of the major things, Mr. Reinbolt said during a break in the meetings.

Several of the keepers were present at an explosive August, 2004, meeting with Scott Warrick, a human resources consultant hired by the zoo last year.

During the meeting, Mr. Warrick handed out a written report in which he said the department was seen as a viper pit where employees continually snipe at management and each other and warned that employees would eventually be terminated if they did not take the report seriously.

He said he based the report on observations and interviews with many of the employees at the Toledo Zoo, though he did not provide documentation of those interviews to zoo administrators.

Prior to the meeting, in an e-mail to human resources director Sheri Caldwell, Mr. Warrick said he hoped to stir up employees with his report.

Following the meeting, 13 mammal department employees including Ms. McConnell, Ms. Petiniot, Ms. Husband, and Ms. Roesler issued a signed complaint to zoo management stating that Mr. Warrick s comments were offensive, erroneous, and hypocritical, and that they served to inflame problems in the department.

Mr. Warrick then responded with a 20-page letter stating that the employees were playing games and concluding that the time for talking and explaining is over.

Zoo officials terminated Mr. Warrick s contract in March after Blade reporters began asking questions about his contributions to the zoo.

After last night s meeting, Mr. Benner would not comment on what he told the task force, but said that he administers the Web site www.supportthezoo.org, which supports the zoo as a community institution.

Also last night in a further effort to get information from employees that do not wish to publicly address the panel task force members met with zoo board vice president Tony Shelbourn to review the rough draft of a survey that will be given to zoo employees next month.

The survey, under the auspices of a zoo board committee charged with looking into zoo culture and headed by Mr. Shelbourn, will ask employees questions about their perceptions of morale, communication issues, and the structure and effectiveness of zoo management, among other things.

No questions on the survey will mention any specific person or department.

Mr. Shelbourn said the survey has been drafted and will be assessed by Chicago-based Stanard & Associates, Inc., will cost the zoo $10.50 per recipient, and will be given to employees each year for the next three years.

Contact Tad Vezner at:tvezner@theblade.comor 419-724-6050.



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