City Managing Director Roy Amemiya said Friday that Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration did not delay the announcement of Honolulu Zoo Administrator Baird Fleming’s resignation until after the Nov. 8 general election to ensure a key City Charter amendment won passage.
Fleming’s announcement Nov. 18 came while the zoo staff and city officials have been taking steps to put the facility in position to reapply for accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The association stripped the 42-acre Waikiki facility of its seal of approval in March.
AZA cited the lack of a steady, dedicated source of funding as the key reason for denying Honolulu reaccreditation but also pointed to the revolving door of zoo directors as troubling. Fleming’s resignation forces the city to find its sixth director in seven years.
But Amemiya insisted that the city did not purposely delay the resignation announcement until Nov. 18 — 10 days after the election — to avert potential impact on the charter amendment vote that gave the zoo a dedicated source of funding, considered a key step toward reaccreditation. While Fleming made his intentions known before the election, the decision was not final, and the city was taking steps to try to retain him, he said.
“I don’t think we were going to go out there and say that our zoo director is leaving when we were trying to keep him from leaving,” Amemiya said.
Fleming, at an Oct. 31 meeting he requested, told Caldwell and Amemiya of his intention to take a job with ABQ BioPark in Albuquerque, N.M.
The primary reason Fleming gave for wanting to leave was the high cost of living in Hawaii, Amemiya said. Fleming agreed to their request to give them two weeks to come up with a proposal to try to get him to remain in Honolulu, he said.
“We wanted him to stay, obviously, so we asked what it would take for him to continue and he gave us what he thought was going to be comparable compensation,” Amemiya said. City officials then scrambled to find additional money in city coffers to pay Fleming, he said.
On Nov. 15 city officials presented an offer to Fleming, who asked for time to make a decision, Amemiya said. “So Thursday, two days later, which was Nov. 17, Baird called me and said that he’s going to decline the offer and accept the position in Albuquerque,” he said.
Fleming, whose resignation is effective Dec. 15, has been making $164,000 annually, an amount that city Enterprise Services Director Guy Kaulukukui told reporters last week is about what zoo directors at other AZA-accredited facilities earn.
Fleming, a veterinarian who has spent the past four years in Honolulu, including three years as assistant director, was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment.
But a press release issued Wednesday by ABQ BioPark said Fleming had accepted a post as its deputy chief executive at $110,000 a year. He is slated to start work in January.
ABQ BioPark, owned and operated by the city of Albuquerque, describes itself as the top tourist destination in New Mexico. It combines a zoo, an aquarium, a botanic garden and a “beach” along the Rio Grande.
The Honolulu Charter amendment adopted this month requires 0.5 percent of estimated annual property tax revenues be dedicated to a special fund that can only be used for the zoo. The amendment is expected to ensure the zoo between $6.5 million and $8 million in subsidies annually.
The amendment passed with 154,035 “yes” votes, or about 57 percent. There were 115,552 “nos,” or about 43 percent. The main argument against passing the amendment came from those who don’t like the idea of dedicating taxpayer money for a dedicated purpose when the city might have different priorities from year to year.
City Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who represents Waikiki and created a working group that included administration officials and members of the Honolulu Zoo Society, said in a statement that he thinks the charter amendment vote was a separate issue from Fleming’s resignation, and was not bothered by the timing.
However, Ozawa said, he was bothered that the administration did not give Council members the heads-up that Fleming was even thinking of leaving because he and his colleagues have been concerned about the zoo’s loss of accreditation.
Ozawa said he was also bothered that Fleming left so abruptly after assuring him he intended to lead the zoo for many years.
“In the end, I think it’s actually a good thing that we start fresh and I’m hopeful that the city administration will choose a new zoo director that will not only care for the animals appropriately but also have some business and operational experience to help lead the zoo back to accreditation,” Ozawa said.
“We need someone that is open-minded, organized, and focused on delivering results and moving the zoo to the next level and I’m not sure we were going to get there with the status quo,” he said, adding that he hopes to get to know potential candidates and provide input on the selection.
Amemiya on Friday gave no timeline for hiring a replacement. The city first wants to meet with a panel of experts to see what can be done to prevent another zoo director from leaving too quickly, he said. One idea might be to set a minimum term in the zoo director’s contract, he said.
The director must also be able to work well with the staff, he said. “We’re not going to rush into it just for the sake of having a zoo director.”
Meanwhile, efforts to petition AZA for accreditation in either 2018 or 2019 continue, with several exhibits expected to open or reopen soon, Amemiya said. The charter amendment requires the dedicated funding source to go away if accreditation is not obtained by 2023, he said.
The health and welfare of the zoo animals have never been called into question by the AZA, and that’s not expected to change, Amemiya said, noting that Assistant Zoo Director Linda Santos has more than 30 years of animal welfare experience. Acting Zoo Administrator Bill Balfour led the city Department of Parks and Recreation when the zoo was part of that department, and was previously manager of Oahu Sugar Co.