September 29, 2009
Mathew LaPlante

The ice age is coming to Utah’s Hogle Zoo.

The Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday determined that Hogle had met the conditions for a $33 million bond to be issued for improvements to the state’s largest animal park — paving the way for a new exhibit featuring polar bears, seals and other Arctic wildlife.

But some believe county taxpayers are being left out in the cold.

Under the terms of a ballot measure approved by voters last November, the east Salt Lake City animal park was required to raise $11 million on its own before the bond could be issued.

In a 7-1 vote, the council decided that the zoo had met that mark. Councilman Jeff Allen cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he believes the zoo was overly zealous in the way it has courted and counted its donations.

At issue for Allen, a tax watchdog group and some ethics experts, is a $2.5 million pledge that Hogle Zoo director Craig Dinsmore solicited from a Denver company in exchange for the right to sell food and souvenirs at the zoo. Allen said the deal “appears to be a pay-to-play” arrangement.

And nonprofit ethics expert Elizabeth Schmidt said that the transaction “doesn’t smell right.”

Schmidt, who teaches nonprofit law and ethics at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, said she wouldn’t have a problem with the gift if the company had presented it without being offered anything in exchange.

But, she said, “if there is any quid pro quo, it is a payment for services and not a gift.”

Paulette Maehara agrees. The Association of Fundraising Professionals president said her organization would see such a deal “as a violation and not ethical.”

She questioned the zoo’s decision to approach and offer the contract to just one vendor, saying such deal making is not in keeping with industry standards.

Dinsmore argued that the company, Service Systems Associates, was the “undisputed leader” in zoo concessions so the zoo didn’t need to seek out a better deal, as it had when the same company failed to get the Hogle contract in the early 2000s.

Dinsmore said criticism of the deal was “irrelevant” in light of the council’s vote.

That vote included a passionate “aye” from council Chairman Joe Hatch, a former member of Hogle’s board of trustees, who said critics of the zoo’s accounting methods were opposed to the bond measure from the start.

“It’s not Enron accounting,” he said. “It’s not evil.”

Hatch lamented that he had to address the criticisms of the Utah Taxpayer’s Association. Invoking a recent town hall jab by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., he said he’d rather argue with “a dining room table.”

Hatch’s vitriol prompted the association’s vice president, Royce Van Tassell, to interrupt the meeting. He stood from his seat to point out that the group hadn’t taken a stand on the bond measure when it was before voters, and only raised its objections when questions arose about the zoo’s bookkeeping.

But Councilman Michael Jensen said he believed that Hogle’s liberal accounting methods were the result of the council’s failure, last year, to be explicit about what it would count as a donation toward the $11 million mark.

“I’m mad at myself and us collectively that we didn’t give more specificity,” he said before voting with the majority of the council to release the bond. It will raise taxes on county homeowners by a few dollars a year.