A contract renegotiation between Fort Worth Zoo officials and city staff – or, perhaps, a lack of negotiation – has some residents suspecting monkey business.
The Parks and Community Services Department hosted a public meeting in January to discuss the contract between the city and the Fort Worth Zoological Association, the nonprofit group that manages the facility. A 20-year contract is set to expire in 2011, and talks about a renewed agreement got under way last year.
Residents who live near the zoo were thrilled – they were glad for a chance to participate and wanted the city to demand amendments to provide more protections for the neighborhood. In the past, the zoo has upset nearby residents by building unsightly security fences topped with barbed wire and proposing to pave over a portion of Forest Park for a parking lot. Neighbors also worry that the zoo will expand into Forest Park and take over soccer fields and parkland. Generally, they don’t feel that zoo officials have the neighborhood’s interests at heart.
“The people who run the zoo treat ordinary people shabbily,” said Ben Swallow, who lives near Texas Christian University and attended the most recent meeting with city and zoo officials. “They are too removed, too isolated.”
The zoo association board is packed with the city’s powerful and elite, led by Ramona and Lee Bass. The city owns the zoo, but its operation has been in private hands since the association made its arrangement with the city in 1991. Since then, the amount of money spent on operations, the number of annual visitors, and the quality of animal care have all increased. The zoo is now one of the nation’s best and one of the city’s top attractions.
But neighbors worry that the current contract allows zoo officials to act in a vacuum, and they want new language that provides for more open dialogue. For instance, Charles Dreyfus, who lives near the zoo, said the Jan. 15 meeting about the contract was supposed to be followed by another meeting on Jan. 28 and then go before city council for approval on Feb. 10.
“Granddaddy would have called that a greased slide,” he said.
State Rep. Lon Burnam said the zoo association and the city parks department haven’t shown enough concern over the zoo’s impact on the adjacent Forest Park, which smacks of elitism since the zoo charges admission while the park and its soccer fields are free. “They [zoo officials] are bullies, and the city employees roll over to them,” he said.
Meanwhile, park officials “have a children-be-damned attitude when it comes to soccer kids and looking out for the larger interests of the children around town,” he said. “There is going to be a constant struggle to defend the inner-city parkland against developers – including the people who developed the Texas diorama thing in the zoo.”
Parks and Community Services Director Richard Zavala said the Jan. 15 meeting was designed to provide an overview of the current contract and the major terms under consideration.
“Staff determined, prior to the Jan. 15 meeting, that additional review and research was needed and that the originally proposed timetable was no longer feasible,” he said. “Formal action was delayed, but the public meeting was still held to afford citizens the opportunity to provide input.”
Residents, though, didn’t feel as though anyone was listening.
Dreyfus and others complained after the Jan. 15 meeting that there was little talk of the contract, only a feel-good slide presentation by a zoo official. When subsequent meetings were cancelled, residents wondered if the renegotiations were going on behind closed doors.
“People from all over town really care about Forest Park,” Dreyfus said. “I’d just like to save the parkland.”
His advice for city and zoo officials: “Don’t meet in private; meet in public and invite people to come in and be a part of it,” he said. “Let’s develop this in an orderly way where everybody can see the plan and discuss it.”
Zavala characterized the discussions as “preliminary” and “still in the research phase.”
A zoo official said no contract renegotiations have taken place, no talks are currently planned, and any talks held previously were limited to updating language in the original 1991 contract.
“We haven’t had any discussions about what either party wants in the contract at this point. It has just been discussions about what’s happened over the 20 years,” zoo spokeswoman Alexis Wilson said.
The parks department announcement that the Jan. 15 public meeting was to include input on contract discussions was “puzzling to us because the contract doesn’t exist yet,” she said.
She couldn’t say when the next meeting would take place or whether it would include talks on the new contract. Zoo officials are focused on building a new herpetarium or reptile house, and city officials have been busy with recent municipal elections.
“Elections are over but we are still in the throes of construction, and our attention is on our new herpetarium,” Wilson said.
However, when talks resume, perhaps later this year, the zoo and the city are both open to public input on the new contract, she said. “We want to be a good neighbor,” she said.
Zavala said the city is committed to transparency. “As always, we welcome public input and provide opportunities for the exchange of information and feedback,” he said. “It’s the Fort Worth way. A public review and input process will be initiated at the appropriate time.”
Still, some neighbors worry. After all, “the Fort Worth way” is a phrase generally used to describe city leaders who work behind closed doors to make decisions without public input. They’ve seen what’s happened in the past with the fencing and parking situations. And they read a Jan. 16 Fort Worth Star-Telegram article that described a looming conflict – the city is considering cutting back on its annual $5.3 million subsidy, while zoo officials want more.
“The people in the zoo association are hard to say no to,” Swallow said. “They must be difficult to deal with if you are on the city staff. The city is kind of in a jam financially, and they never have been good at stepping on people’s toes.”
Zavala isn’t showing his cards before the negotiation but said the city intends to negotiate a “fiscally responsible contract” with the zoo.
“Naturally, though, we have a vested interest in the zoo’s success,” he said.