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Published: Friday, 3/11/2005

Some county figures call for greater oversight of zoo board

BY TAD VEZNER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

When it comes to the board running the Toledo Zoo, several past and present Lucas County commissioners say it may be time for the county to exercise added oversight at one of Toledo's most beloved institutions.

After all, they say, county taxpayers provide about $11 million a year to help run the zoo.

"In the future, I really feel that there should be a county presence, especially since there's such a county investment," said Harry Barlos, past president of the county commissioners.

Pete Gerken, a current county commissioner, said with public interest high following the firing last week of longtime zoo veterinarian Dr. Tim Reichard, the county needs a representative on the zoo board.

He added that he's been asked about the zoo repeatedly during the last 24 hours by numerous residents.

"We should have a seat at the table to address these issues directly, especially given the events of today, where obviously the community has taken an interest in this dismissal," Mr. Gerken said.

READ MORE: Crisis at the Zoo

Dr. Reichard was fired on Feb. 28 by William Dennler, executive director of the zoo, and Robert Harden, chief operating officer of the zoo, for what they said were concerns over "Dr. Reichard's administrative and management skills."

Dr. Reichard says he was fired for telling federal zoo inspectors about animal-care issues that weren't being addressed.

Stephen Staelin, president of the Toledo Zoological Society's board of directors, said yesterday he would welcome the addition of a county voice on the board.

"It's helpful to have somebody from public office that represents a county perspective," he said. "We offered a position on the board to the commissioners, then they declined to fill it."

The county used to have a representative on the zoo board, but in January, 2003, concerns from county lawyers made them step away from the panel, as well as other local boards.

Mr. Barlos was one of the last county commissioners to sit on the zoo board. "We were outnumbered. There were more attorneys giving opinions than board members," he said.

The county prosecutor's office advised the commissioners not to have too much sway over private community boards that may later come before them requesting levies on the ballot.

Maggie Thurber, a current county commissioner who was present for the 2003 decision to leave the zoo board, argues the reasons for stepping away from the board were good ones and have not changed.

"I have to trust that the prosecutor's office did their best to give us advice. And if there's a conflict, there's a conflict. State ethics laws prohibit it," she said.

Lucas County Commission president Tina Skeldon Wozniak, who is the granddaughter of Frank Skeldon, the first zoo director and a former business editor of The Blade, said she's troubled by the legal opinion.

"I have challenged the thinking on that now and again - I'm not sure if it is clearly defined as a conflict of interest," she said. "I would really like more information from the prosecutor's office."

The question of public oversight of the zoo began in 1982, when the zoo - including the land, buildings, and animals - was given by the city of Toledo to the Toledo Zoological Society after a fiscal crisis in which 20 city employees working at the zoo were laid off.

One city councilman at the time voiced concern.

"My main concern is turning over one of the city's most valuable assets ... and not having any particular control over it," said then-councilman Bill Copeland.

Mr. Copeland went on to become a Lucas County commissioner and sat on the Toledo Zoological Society's board to monitor its efforts.

Two Lucas County levies - a 10-year capital levy that began in 1995, and a 5-year operational levy renewed in 2002 - are projected to give around $11.5 million of taxpayer money to the society in 2005.

Ms. Thurber said she's fairly satisfied with the county's current level of oversight - based on information she receives annually.

"I personally review the zoo's year-end statements and their audits every year," she said.

"And they have to come back before the board of commissioners to make a case before they put anything back on the ballot. We have the ability to say no."

But Mr. Gerken and Ms. Wozniak said they would like more information from the zoo board.

"Some of the boards will come in and give regular reports, but I have not had a formal sit-down with the zoo board that I can recall," Ms. Wozniak said.

Contact Tad Vezner at:

tvezner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050



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