May 18, 2010

You would think that people who run a zoo would be better at sidestepping dung heaps. But in the case of Utah’s Hogle Zoo, perhaps not.

When the zoo invested heavily in an extravagant new entry complex in 2000, while animal quarters lay neglected, the public was outraged. The zoo’s management took it on the chin from a legislative audit and other blows to its reputation.

Nevertheless, zoo management overcame that stain in subsequent years and voters passed two bond issues, one in Salt Lake City, the other in Salt Lake County, to improve animal habitat. The latest, in 2008, was a county bond issue to provide $33 million in public funds if the zoo raised another $11 million in private money.

Now County Councilman David Wilde is charging that the zoo is using $2.5 million of that private money to build a cafe, not animal habitat. The donation came from the outfit, Service Systems Associates, that will become the zoo’s food concessionaire.

Wilde sees a pay-for-play deal. And he doesn’t like the idea that the public wasn’t told that the cafe was among the capital improvements the bond and private funds would finance.

We agree with the councilman that the bond was sold to voters to build new homes for animals, not new dining facilities for humans. A look at the campaign materials that zoo officials used to pitch the bond issue to¬†The Tribune’s Editorial Board prior to the election makes scant mention of a cafe, though the “Tembo Terrace” eatery does appear on a single master plan illustration.

When voters went to the polls, they wouldn’t have had even this much information. They were told about plans to build new Arctic and African savannah exhibits and an animal health center. So we can see why people see this as a bait-and-switch.

That said, the zoo must provide pleasant facilities for its human guests if it is going to attract them to the animal exhibits. More guests equals more admissions revenue which means more funds for the animals and their care. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

The moral to this story is that public facilities like Utah’s Hogle Zoo must keep the voters informed of their plans and how taxpayer’s money will be spent. If you’re going to build a new cafe, that needs to be part of the public disclosure up front. Otherwise, the next time you try to go to the public trough, the electorate will tell you to take a hike.

Given the zoo’s history with this sort of controversy, you would think that would be obvious by now.