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Published: Tuesday, 5/3/2005

TOLEDO ZOO

Vet's deal isn't first to silence ex-official

Management talks in ’02 hint discord

BY JENNI LAIDMANAND TAD VEZNER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

The decision by the Toledo Zoo to reach a settlement with former head veterinarian Tim Reichard is not the first time that the taxpayer-financed zoo has paid a top manager to walk away and keep quiet.

Former zoo development director Debbie Rump, who took part in a contentious meeting in 2002 where top officials discussed problems with the management style of zoo Executive Director William Dennler, said recently that a financial settlement she reached with the zoo at the time of her resignation prohibits her from talking about the zoo.

Zoo officials have not yet responded to a public records request made by The Blade on April 19 seeking records of past payments to employees who agreed to remain silent after reaching settlements with zoo officials.

What is known is that the board of the Toledo Zoological Society, which operates the former city zoo, has agreed to pay Dr. Reichard $126,000 to end a dispute with him about his Feb. 28 firing.

Part of the agreement prohibits him from discussing "his opinions as to the welfare of the animals at the Zoo, the circumstances of his termination or reinstatement of employment, his opinions regarding personnel at the Zoo, or any other matters pertaining to the Zoo," with the media, zoo employees, colleagues, "or any other third parties," unless subpoenaed.

READ MORE: Crisis at the Zoo

The settlement, with its prohibitions placed on Dr. Reichard, has raised concerns by members of a county-appointed citizens task force charged with investigating problems at the zoo.

Task Force Co-Chairman Marty Skeldon said Saturday that zoo officials have thwarted the task force from determining the scope of problems at the zoo - which will receive more than $11 million from two Lucas County property tax levies this year.

"This zoo board has cut us off, our task force, in a number of different ways. First the commissioners appoint the task force. A couple days later, the zoo appoints a couple task forces of their own to investigate the same things we're investigating," said Mr. Skeldon, whose grandfather Frank "Curly" Skeldon, a former Blade reporter and business editor, helped found the zoo. "That in itself has hurt our task force in being able to investigate this the way we want to. They immediately interviewed their own people, and the next thing you know nobody wants to talk to us."

Steve Serchuk, chairman of the county task force's animal care committee, said the settlement with Dr. Reichard was reached before his committee was finished. "I just wish this would have happened after our task force had completed its work," Mr. Serchuk said.

Mr. Dennler said yesterday that Dr. Reichard "has already been interviewed by the task force. ... My sense is that he was really done testifying before the task force."

The executive director said when the task force was set up, "there was no mention of looking into Tim Reichard at all. The purpose, as I understood it, was to look at the operations of the zoo as a whole."

He also said he had nothing to do with the agreement between the zoo board and Dr. Reichard announced Saturday.

Dr. Reichard is qualified to provide information to the animal-care committee of the county task force because before his dismissal, he had been the zoo's head veterinarian for the last 22 years during the period of major expansion at the zoo.

In his former job, he was also designated the zoo's attending veterinarian, a position required by federal law.

It was his candid disclosures last year to zoo inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that he said led to his firing by Mr. Dennler. Zoo officials said Dr. Reichard was fired because of administrative and management problems they won't disclose.

Disagreement cited

Dr. Reichard's disputes within the zoo were only part of what appears to be problems among top zoo administrators.

Minutes of a March 13, 2002, meeting of the zoo's Executive Management Group suggest a work environment fraught with disagreement.

In what appears to be a discussion of problems among zoo administrators, the six-page document describes "open warfare" between managers, backbiting, rude behavior during meetings, and problems in managers' relationships with Mr. Dennler.

"Working with Bill is experienced by some as difficult, intimidating or scary,'' the minutes said. There were complaints that the executive director yelled at people and failed to acknowledge their value.

They also discussed other management problems.

"There is a fear of repercussion manifested by some people being afraid they will be ... seen as stupid, belittled in the meeting, [and] blamed and shamed in front of others," the minutes state.

There is no written record of what came of this meeting, why it was held, and if anything was resolved.

Mr. Dennler has refused to discuss the issues raised at the meeting with reporters, as have most of the others present at the gathering.

Three of the nine top managers in attendance at the March 13, 2002, meeting left the zoo within a year, including former finance director Regina Hyldahl and former development director Debbie Rump.

Ms. Hyldahl said she doesn't remember the meeting or what led up to it, and left the zoo on good terms. Ms. Rump said the financial settlement she reached with the zoo at the time of her resignation prohibits her from talking about the zoo.

Mr. Dennler said yesterday he doesn't recall how many agreements have been made with former employees where money has been paid and the former employee has to remain silent about zoo operations.

Another former zoo official at the meeting was William Vicary, a former marketing director. He said he doesn't remember the meeting clearly, but described a management atmosphere similar to what the minutes describe.

"It was a very territorial environment,'' Mr. Vicary said. "You'd be at a meeting and people would attack each other or set each other up."

Mr. Vicary was fired after six months at the zoo. He was one of five marketing directors to be hired by the zoo in three years.

"That was my first venture in the nonprofit world,'' Mr. Vicary said. Before he took the job, Mr. Vicary thought working for the zoo "looked like the coolest job in the whole wide world."

"Look where you are. Look at the visibility. I was just amazed."

But the reality, he said, was quite another thing.

'You feel belittled'

"I don't know if I ever saw him yell, but he had a way to make you feel belittled," he said.

"[Mr.] Dennler's a control freak. Micromanage maybe is a good word," he said.

Robert Harden, the zoo's chief operating officer, characterized the meeting as a get-acquainted session to air out "perceptions" that the managers had, or were told about by other managers, rather than known facts.

"We were a new senior management team. We were all trying to get to know each other,'' Mr. Harden said. "That was the main thrust of it.

"It was an exercise. People were throwing ideas that could be potential inhibitors,'' he said.

He disputed that there was open warfare between managers.

"I don't agree with that term. It's a bad description. It was just a competitive factor between departments, which I think is healthy,'' Mr. Harden said.

He said he's never seen zoo employees belittle, blame, or shame each other in his three-year tenure.

"I'm not sure where that came from,'' he said. "Honestly I can't remember ever seeing that in the time I've been there, at any level.''

As far as complaints about Mr. Dennler's personal style, Mr. Harden said that the executive director simply possesses the type of strong personality a leadership role requires.

"I'll be the first to admit that Bill is a demanding CEO. But I think that's good, and I think the senior management team thinks so too. The zoo wouldn't be what it is today without him. He's the primary upfront ambassador for the zoo - and that kind of thing requires a strong individual."

Mr. Dennler declined repeated requests for an interview about the March, 2002, meeting.

Zoo board president Stephen Staelin said he understood the 2002 meeting was an "exercise in, I guess, a management development standpoint. I have no idea the ground rules for that session."

Facts not known

As far as the specific complaints in the meeting, he said: "I don't know if it's factual. ...That's pretty severe, extreme behavior. None of that has ever been brought to my attention."

But he said: "If that were standard behavior, any board should pay attention to that and deal with it."

Others have nothing but praise for the long-time director.

"Bill is a fine man, and he cares about his employees,'' said Peter Tolson, the zoo's director of conservation and research. "It's very shocking to see this portrayal [of him] as a vindictive person. This is terrible to see.

"Bill doesn't always agree with me, the things I wanted to do or try, but I always felt the door was open for me to come in and try to convince him of a different point of view, or change his mind. I've never known anybody, keeper, curator, or vet, who haven't been able to approach Bill openly and without fear."

Yet, another former zoo manager who asked not to be named said Mr. Dennler "was probably one of the more challenging people that I've had to work with,'' and said the zoo's atmosphere "seemed very politicized internally."

"It has to be Bill's way. ...You had to always make sure Bill was on board. If you didn't, you got your legs chopped off. This is Bill's zoo. This is what Bill wants. If you challenge the status quo too hard, pushed too hard, you got pushed back,'' said the manager, who was ultimately asked to resign.

The agreement with Dr. Reichard calls for him to be paid a total of $126,726 over the next 18 months. He will receive $36,726 in back pay, benefits, and attorney's fees dating back to the date of his firing on Feb. 28.

Not allowed at zoo

He also will be "reinstated" to his former position, but will not be allowed to step foot on zoo property.

Zoo officials said Dr. Reichard will be paid $90,000 over the next 18 months to be a consultant, working at the request of zoo officials.

Stephen Krueger, a keeper of large mammals who will testify before the task force Thursday, said he is concerned that Dr. Reichard will not be able to give his insights to the task force because of the settlement.

"Tim has an important part in all this. He has a lot of information. He's a real voice. Now he's been silenced."

Mary Beth McConnell, another large mammal keeper, is skeptical of the agreement announced Saturday between the zoo and Dr. Reichard.

"When the Toledo Zoo said that Dr. Tim had left the zoo to pursue other opportunities, he was really fired. When they say he's been reinstated, he's really left to pursue other opportunities. When the zoo says black, they mean white."

Contact Jenni Laidman at:

jenni@theblade.com

or 419-724-6507.



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