A proposed contract between the city of Waco and the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society calls for increased city oversight of Cameron Park Zoo finances, a shift in leadership structure and a shift in staff from the nonprofit society to the city.
The contract, an outline of which was announced at the Waco City Council meeting Tuesday, proposes a city-led cash handling system for the food services and gift shop at the zoo.
The plan comes in the wake of an accounting firm’s inquiry into cash-handling practices at the zoo and the departure of former director Jim Fleshman in April. Fleshman was asked to resign during the inquiry and also faced a sexual harassment allegation from a former employee.
In the months since, general curator Johnny Binder has served as interim director, and the city and the zoological and botanical society have discussed how to redefine their relationship. Binder, Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford and zoological and botanical society President Nancy Baird presented a proposal for a new operating agreement Tuesday.
“The contract will provide confidence to the public, zoo contributors and the (Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting group,) that we’re working in partnership to make a great zoo an even greater asset to the citizens of Waco,” Ford said.
The proposal includes a shift from one director under the zoological society, to a director employed by the city and an executive director overseeing the society. It would also shift about 10 full-time-equivalent staff positions from the society to the city, leaving the society with 4.5 full-time-equivalents and the city with 59.5.
The zoological society would handle fundraising, marketing, corporate partnerships, memberships, facility rentals and conservation efforts; and the city would handle animal care, facility upkeep, grounds maintenance, the gift shop and educational efforts, according to Tuesday's presentation.
Both the city and the society would communicate with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the city manager's office would have a nonvoting member on the society's executive committee and board.
The added city employees would be primarily related to food service, gift shop and education areas, Ford said.
The city's subsidy for the zoo, which is $2.7 million this fiscal year, is not expected to be affected in the long term by the new agreement, Ford said.
The Zoo Commission, which has been inactive since 2008, would be reactivated as an advisory committee over zoo operations, with members from the city council, zoological society and McLennan County.
Under a proposed timeline, the city would advertise the zoo director position in the next two weeks, interview candidates early next year and make a hire in the spring, around the time the new contract would take effect. Ford said the city has received more than 30 letters of interest from across the country for the position.
The society's director position would follow a similar timeline, Baird said.
Councilwoman Alice Rodriguez said she will need to review the proposal and learn more details.
“I want to have a little more time to look at this and really absorb and think on it and see what would be for the best interest for the citizens of Waco and the county as well,” Rodriguez said. “I’m going to save my comments on that part until later.”
Ford also kept the door open for a May bond election to pay for a zoo expansion. Weeks before Fleshman's resignation, he lobbied city and county leaders for a $12.5 million project. At the time of Fleshman's resignation, Stephen Holze, then the president of the zoological and botanical society, said the push for the election would continue, but county commissioners, who would handle the bond, tabled discussions on it.
County commissioners have not yet heard a proposal for a May bond election, and it is unclear whether the proposal would be the same one Fleshman had pushed.
“I guess it could be done,” County Judge Scott Felton said Tuesday. “You have a marketing campaign that you have to get out in front of, but there’s certain things you do. Commissioners have to agree to the election, and agreeing to do that, that would mean they would sell the bonds. Consideration would be to what effect does that have on our balance sheet going forward, and things like that.”