New agreement puts problem-plagued Columbus Zoo under one board on tighter financial leash

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Agreement tightens financial oversight of public levy money spent by Columbus Zoo following revelations in Dispatch investigation and amid state probes

The Columbus Dispatch

Franklin County and the city of Columbus have quietly put in place a new agreement that will eliminate one of two boards with oversight over the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, changes the make-up of the remaining board and ensures better financial accountability.

The new memorandum of understanding agreement puts the zoo on a tighter financial leash by requiring the nonprofit Columbus Zoological Park Association to provide the county with all “necessary information to assure (taxpayer levy funds) are used appropriately,” according to the agreement.

The changes follow a 2021 Dispatch investigation that revealed zoo executives allowed relatives to live in houses owned or controlled by the zoo, obtained tickets for their family members to attend various entertainment events, and raised questions about other expenditures. A forensic audit that followed concluded four executives used zoo assets on personal expenses, including concert tickets, golf memberships, Amazon purchases, satellite radio subscriptions and vehicles, resulting in more than $630,000 in zoo expenses.

Last spring, the zoo reached a settlement with its former president and CEO Tom Stalf under which he agreed to repay $400,000 due to questionable perks provided to him and family members. Zoo CFO Greg Bell also resigned and agreed to repay the zoo $132,000.

The county commissioners formally reprimanded the zoo for the lax oversight in November 2021.

Two state agencies have ongoing probes into the zoo’s expenditures and operations.

The new public-private agreement does away with a two-board system, with some members simultaneously serving on each, in favor of one nonprofit board with up to 19 members, including four members each appointed by the city of Columbus and Franklin County.

Under the previous agreement, the city and county each named six people to an 18-member “appointed” board that was in charge of overseeing expenditures of funds from the zoo’s countywide taxpayer property tax levy, which represents about 20% of the zoo’s total revenues. That appointed board operated in conjunction with the 25-member nonprofit zoological association board, Jeanine Hummer, chief counsel for the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office Civil Division, told The Dispatch.

“The revised three-party agreement will provide greater transparency and public oversight by combining what was previously two boards with separate access and responsibilities into one board that includes the members appointed by the city and county,” Franklin County administrator Kenneth Wilson told The Dispatch.

The new single board will be comprised of between eight members mimumum (the four each from the city and county) and a maximum19 members by Jan. 1, 2024. How that occurs will be up to the current 25-member zoo board to figure out.

“A smaller board will be closer to the governmental authorities while still able to effectively manage the operations of the zoo,” Wilson said.

More specifics about the new agreement

The new memorandum of understanding agreement also:

  • Requires that the eight publicly appointed members will comprise a required separate “Levy Oversight Committee,” whose chair must have a seat on a mandated “Executive Committee” of the new 19-member zoo board.
  • Still gives the zoo board the power to spend tax levy dollars, but only after “the recommendation of its Levy Oversight Committee” and according to the updated Code of Regulations.
  • Specifies that expenditure of levy dollars will be paid through an invoice/reimbursement system requiring the zoo to provide the county with documentation of expenditures, which must be submitted with the recommendation of both the zoo board and the Levy Oversight Committee for final approval by the commissioners.
  • Defines for the first time what “eligible expenses for reiumbursement” are, including things like “animal food,” supplies, maintenance, and educational programming, and wages for staff involved with those areas. It gives the county the right to demand additional information on any expenses and also the right to reject paying them.
  • The zoo must account for the expenditure of “all funds” from the levy to the county “as often as requested, but at least annually.” That’s more stringent than the previous annual requirement.

Not everything transparent in new agreement, but regulation changes may have helped zoo regain accreditation

Despite the moves toward more accountability, however, the new agreement actually reduces transparency in at least one area. The previous agreement required both zoo boards to follow the Ohio Open Meetings Act and conduct business in public meetings. The new agreement allows the meetings of the full single zoo board to be closed to the public, but the meetings of the eight-member Levy Oversight Committee would be subject to the Open Meetings Act since they must make recommendations on expenditures of public levy dollars.

The new agreement requires that the zoo continue to charge “reasonable” admission prices — while continuing to not define what is reasonable. General admission prices currently range from $16.99 to $29.99 per person depending on age and Franklin County residency, although various discounts apply, according to the zoo’s website. 

Tyler Lowry, a spokesman for the Franklin County Commissioners, said the new agreement also “strengthens and updates the zoo’s Code of Regulations, which we think has helped them to regain its accreditation.”

The zoo lost its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for 18 months following the issues over financial expenditures along with allegations in a documentary film that celebrity conservationist and former longtime Columbus Zoo director Jack Hanna had acquired and displayed exotic animals purportedly belonging to the zoo — such as baby tigers and snow leopards that appeared with Hanna on late-night talk shows — through back-channel breeders and organizations that didn’t adhere to strict animal care standards.

The zoo announced last week that the AZA had restored its accreditation following a December inspection.

The new memorandum of understanding agreement and the updated Code of Regulations were approved by a 2-0 vote of the Franklin County commissioners on March 28. The third commissioner, Erica Crawley, was absent. The new agreement and code replace ones last updated in 2015, when the last zoo levy went before voters.

That .75-mill, 10-year levy, which was projected to generate about $19 million per year, is set to expire at the end of 2025. The county commissioners would have to approve putting any renewal levy on the ballot.

“It is up to the commissioners to put levies on the ballot, but there’s no schedule for another one yet,” Lowry told The Dispatch.

Zoo President and CEO Tom Schmid didn’t return a phone call left last week by The Dispatch seeking comment. The new agreement has already been signed by the chair of the zoo board, Katie Wolfe Lloyd, and by the county, and is expected to be signed soon by a city of Columbus official.

“We’ve worked in close collaboration to make changes and reforms that ensure accountability and transparency in how the zoo operates, overhauls the board structure and supports the new zoo leadership,” Robin Davis, deputy chief of staff to Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, told The Dispatch.

A special investigation by the Ohio Auditor’s office is ongoing, a spokesman said Thursday. There has been no announcement on another probe by the Ohio Attorney General’s office, which didn’t return a call from The Dispatch.

“The county commissioners are responsible for helping to safeguard the public’s levy dollars, and I think that this new agreement reflects their commitment to doing just that,” Lowry said. “It allows for greater oversight by the publicly appointed members of the zoo board, and greater transparency for the entire zoo budget.”