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Who's Watching the Zoo? 

As the $48 million June ballot measure looms, so do questions about the financial assumptions behind it

Wednesday, Feb 19 1997
The San Francisco Zoo's $48 million bond was supposed to be an easy sell. Slated for the June ballot, it was supposed to be about moving animals out of tiny concrete cages into grassy open spaces; about conservation, education, and the future of a 68-year-old S.F. institution. Instead, it's become a referendum on the San Francisco Zoological Society's ability to raise money to support its $13 million-plus yearly operation -- and the honesty of the financial picture the Society is presenting to the voters.

After years of city budget cuts to the zoo itself, the Zoological Society, the zoo's longtime private, nonprofit booster group, won partial control in 1993. The city agreed to make "reasonable efforts" to secure a ballot spot for a bond measure of at least $25 million within five years. The zoo, for its part, had to immediately raise $10 million in private money for a "Founders' Fund" and eventually an extra $25 million for capital improvements.

The city is living up to its end of the bargain with the June bond. The zoo says it too will hold to the pact. But a few lone critics, including longtime zoo watcher Susanne Eubanks Barthell, say the zoo hasn't demonstrated sufficient fund-raising prowess over the past four years. Furthermore, they say that the zoo's confusing finances warrant an independent audit. Those concerns could sink the bond, and zoo officials know it.

Mindful of the defeat of the de Young Museum's seemingly sure-fire bond last year, zoo officials have responded vocally to Barthell's allegations. Director David Anderson says the Founders' Fund was a success, with a total take of $13 million, $3 million more than its goal.

But Barthell, who is also executive director of the National Council for Excellence in Zoo Animal Management, a small nonprofit organization, says that's only part of the story. "The goal in 1993 was to raise $25 to $30 million, and that has not been met. That's critical," says Barthell.

The zoo indeed pledged in 1993 that it would raise $30 million. The first third was a snap. That money went into the Founders' Fund, and $5 million of it was used for immediate capital improvements. However, an active fund-raising campaign over the next three years added only $3 million to the coffers, seriously off the early pace. Last year, the zoo finally shelved the effort to gather the final $17 million.

Anderson says the zoo is on track because the second campaign, the $25 million capital improvements drive, didn't officially start until Jan. 21 of this year.

But that's the old campaign in new clothes, according to the zoo's own membership newsletter, Barthell says. In a 1993 speech reprinted in the January/February 1994 issue of the Zoo Views, Zoological Society Chair Mary Jane Armacost announced that the $10 million was "one-third of [the] total goal," adding, "We will develop the strategies necessary to complete the $30 million capital drive during this coming year." That would have been 1994.

Barthell says that's the "smoking gun" that proves the zoo's capital campaign had already begun. Anderson insists Barthell is confusing terminology, and that the former $30 million campaign was nothing more than an attempt to extend the Founders' Fund while it had momentum. There was no new campaign, he says. "We shifted [the campaign that began in 1993] to this campaign because we were redoing the development plan," says Anderson. "It did not fail."

Still, Anderson concedes the zoo's fund-raising has fallen short. That's why, for example, the South American Gateway, an exhibit for tamarins and tapirs, has yet to be built, three years after it was approved. (Barthell raised the same issue in a Chronicle op-ed piece earlier this month.) "We did not raise as much as we wanted to," Anderson now admits. "We decided that we would reorganize the way we raised money."

The bond can't afford many doubters. According to the zoo's own poll, 70 percent of San Franciscans will support a $40 million to $50 million bond for the zoo. That's just barely beats the minimum two-thirds majority the measure needs to pass.

The same voter suspicion that helped defeat the de Young bond appeal last year could sink the zoo's in this election. "Environmental concerns and distrust of the government killed the de Young," says the zoo's campaign consultant, John Whitehurst, who also ran the de Young campaign. "People didn't trust the promises."

Barthell doesn't trust the zoo much either. In fact, she's a full-time skeptic. Anderson questions Barthell's motivations, but says he's provided her with every document she's asked for and answered all of her questions. Nevertheless, he worries that her badgering could spoil the necessary two-thirds majority.

Whitehurst also questions whether Barthell's nonprofit organization is legitimate, saying it doesn't "exist outside of her living room. She gets treated as a credible critic. It's one thing to say that a neighborhood group has 25 concerns, but she doesn't have the credibility to warrant attention."

Barthell concedes that her 4-year-old organization is a small one -- too small to merit registering with the IRS, for example -- but says that she has a board of directors to whom she must answer before taking any action. Furthermore, her credentials extend beyond her work for that group. "I've been a long-term, eight-year monitor of the zoo," says Barthell. She also volunteered at the zoo from 1984 to '89 and served on a zoo advisory committee created by the Board of Supervisors in 1988.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano thought Barthell had enough legitimate questions to warrant a financial and operational audit. "I thought it was a reasonable request because there do seem to be some questions to the finances," says Ammiano. "I like the zoo, but frankly I think that people are being led down a primrose path on these bond issues."

Next week the full board is expected to vote on his request. Since the item requires a unanimous vote, one supe could stall the process simply by referring it to a committee. That could prevent it from being completed before June.

Both Anderson and Whitehurst say they welcome any chance to clear up questions and move on. "We're going to do everything possible to demonstrate forthrightly that any questions have been answered," says Whitehurst. "John Whitehurst will be at the board to support an audit or whatever the supes want to see.

About The Author

Jeff Stark


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