A few hours after Lucas County officials announced the formation of a task force to investigate problems at the Toledo Zoo, the head of the zoo board called the lease of two luxury Volvos for top zoo officials a "mistake."
Stephen Staelin, zoo board president, said he was also calling a special meeting of the zoo board to give head veterinarian Dr. Tim Reichard, fired by the zoo last week, "his day in court."
"In light of the publicity resulting from the termination, [the board] felt it would be appropriate that he be given the opportunity to speak," said zoo Chief Operating Officer Robert Harden, who was responsible for firing Dr. Reichard.
Regarding the Volvos, Mr. Staelin said the board knew that cars were included in the compensation package provided to Mr. Harden and zoo Executive Director William Dennler, but did not know that the two had leased Volvos for themselves.
"This is a mistake that Bill feels he made, and I have to agree with him," Mr. Staelin said. "This is a car that is inappropriate in the context of Toledo and in the context of a publicly supported institution."
The zoo last year received about $11.4 million from two county property tax levies.
The zoo recently traded in a Jeep and Dodge and leased the Volvos for its top two executives. Mr. Dennler has a 2005 Volvo SUV, for which the zoo pays $673.94 a month. Mr. Harden drives a Volvo sedan with a monthly lease payment of $609.04.
Earlier this week, Mr. Harden called the leases the "best financial deal for the Toledo Zoo," while Mr. Dennler explained, "The Volvo is a safer car and has better gas mileage than the Jeeps I've been driving over the last seven to eight years."
Last night, Mr. Harden admitted, "In retrospect it was not very good judgment on our part, and we certainly intend to fix it."
Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the county commissioners, said she received a telephone call from Mr. Dennler yesterday from the Bahamas, where he is vacationing. "I suggested to Mr. Dennler that he get a different car, and he said he would be doing that," she said.
Mr. Harden added that Mr. Dennler was cutting his vacation short to return to Toledo because of the controversy.
Meanwhile, a "Special Citizens Task Force" will examine the zoo's operations, starting as soon as next week, said Ms. Wozniak, who is also the granddaughter of Frank Skeldon, the zoo's first director and a former Blade business editor.
"The Toledo Zoo has been one of northwest Ohio's most valuable gems," she said at a press conference yesterday. "[The zoo] is too important to allow these questions to continue."
County commissioners have appointed longtime Toledo government insider Robert Reinbolt to head the committee. Mr. Reinbolt, 57, who heads his own consulting group, was last tapped by the board in December to fill in as interim county treasurer after former treasurer Ray Kest resigned from the office in disgrace.
Mr. Reinbolt, a registered Independent and a Toledo native, called the task force a "good opportunity" for an independent body to take a look at what's happening at the zoo, a Toledo institution since 1900. "It's an important issue," he said. "The timing seems to be right."
Ms. Wozniak said last night that several zoo board and zoo foundation members approached the county yesterday asking that a committee be formed to review zoo operations.
"We told them that we would do the appointing of the task force members and it would not be a rubber-stamp committee for the zoo," she said.
She said the zoo officials - including board president Staelin, past presidents Patrick Johnson, Mark Schaffer, and Mark Ridenour, and zoo board member George Oravecz - told her the task force would have complete access to all zoo records and be able to review all aspects of zoo operations from animal care to finances.
Ms. Wozniak said their only request was that a representative of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association be included as a member of the committee.
Flanked by an unsmiling Maggie Thurber and Pete Gerken, her fellow commissioners, Ms. Wozniak announced the formation of the task force.
She cited Mr. Reinbolt's "extensive experience in government and the private sector" as a factor in his selection to head the group. He said later that beyond ordinary visits to the zoo, he had no ties to the institution, and has no special expertise in zoo matters.
Mr. Reinbolt said he did not know how many members the task force would have or who would serve on the committee.
The commissioners and Mr. Oravecz said during the press conference that they had heard from numerous citizens concerned about the dismissal of Dr. Reichard.
"We've all received phone calls," Mr. Gerken said, adding that people want to know "how could a guy of 22 years and that reputation be let go?"
Dr. Reichard has said - and his personnel file at the zoo confirms - that he had stellar annual reviews from his bosses at the zoo until shortly after he talked to federal zoo inspectors last year about animal-care problems, and animals deaths, at the zoo.
After that, the veterinarian said, zoo officials began to reprimand him for communication problems. He was fired on Feb. 28.
Dr. Reichard asked the board through his attorney to appoint a committee to review his firing, but the board refused. Last night, Mr. Staelin said the board would agree to hear his concerns directly. And will the board consider reinstating him?
"No, not at this point, one step at a time," Mr. Staelin said last night. "Once the meeting is over we'll have some discussion as to what further action would be appropriate."
But Dr. Reichard said last night he remains very hopeful that he will be allowed to return to the zoo. "I will definitely go to that meeting with all the information to convince them that it's in the best interest of the Toledo Zoo that I be reinstated," Dr. Reichard said.
Staff writer Steve Eder contributed to this report.
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