Editorial: Zoo, Equitas, Shelter Board must work to re-earn trust after disgraceful scandals

A recent editorial by the Columbus Dispatch:

A “best zoos in the United States” list cannot be taken seriously unless it includes ours along the eastern banks of the O’Shaughnessy Reservoir on the Scioto River.

Opened in 1927, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is among Ohio’s most renowned institutions.

It has long held this community’s trust and money.

The nonprofit organization sits on city owned land and draws $19 million of its annual $92 million budget from Franklin County taxpayers.

More than that, Greater Columbus roots hard for the zoo and wants it to win.

It is for these and other reasons that the board of directors of the zoo — one of three respected Columbus nonprofits now in the middle of embarrassing and disgraceful scandals that have rocked public confidence — must take aggressive action to maintain public trust and support. The board of the other two organizations must do the same and increase and sustain their vigilance.

News that the zoo was stripped of the accreditation it has held since 1980 from the industry’s top accrediting bodies came one day after it named Tom Schmid, president and CEO of the Texas State Aquarium, as its next leader.

He and the Zoo’s board will have their hands full rebuilding public confidence that they are watchful stewards of our money and are deserving of admiration.

Honesty and transparency to the public will be key with leaders of the zoo, as it will be for leaders of the Community Shelter Board and Equitas Health.

Ebony Wheat, a Community Shelter Board employee has pleaded guilty to three counts of federal program theft and is awaiting sentencing for cutting $352,769 in checks to friends who were not landlords and did not provide any services to the agency’s homeless clients.

Equitas Health’s board of trustees plans to investigate claims of racial discrimination within the Columbus-based health provider after The Dispatch interviewed 15 former Equitas employees who say they experienced or witnessed mistreatment of Black employees.

They called out discrimination in hiring, promotion, and discipline from Equitas, a non-profit health system that serves LGBTQ+ healthcare needs in 13 Ohio cities including this one. It generated $56 million in revenue for the year that ended June 30, 2020.

Of the three, the zoo perhaps has given the Capital City its most noticeable shiner.

The bruised eye is described as an “overall culture of entitlement” in a forensic report that found misspending and questionable business practices cost the zoo at least $631,000.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums – the international gold standard – cites concerns about the Columbus Zoo’s acquisition from non-AZA members of baby tigers and snow leopards for entertainment as highlighted in the documentary “The Conservation Game,” and the inappropriate financial management issues by former leaders.

The financial details were forced into the light by a series of Dispatch articles about their personal use of zoo resources.

Tom Stalf, then zoo president and CEO; and Greg Bell, then chief financial officer, resigned after the newspaper’s investigation showed they sought zoo tickets for their family members to attend various entertainment events and allowed relatives to live in houses owned or controlled by the zoo.

The zoo board at first refused to divulge details of its investigation into the matter but changed its tune following public outcry.

Officials with the Ohio Ethics Commission and the offices of Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and Ohio Auditor of State Keith Faber are investigating.

The zoo says it already has taken several corrective steps, including changing the reporting structure of the Animal Programs department to the vice president of animal care instead of the chief financial officer, ending relationships with all vendors highlighted in the Conservation Game, and updating all non-AZA institutional profiles and enhancing oversight of approvals.

It plans to appeal the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s decision by the Oct. 30 deadline.

In a statement, Jerry Borin, interim CEO and President of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said the zoo met the Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards when inspectors visited in July.

“The poor decisions of a handful of people should not negate the good work this team does and how much staff members contribute to the AZA through committee work and leadership roles,” he said. “Nobody currently working at the Zoo had anything to do with the position we find ourselves in today. We’ve acknowledged the wrongdoings of the past. We’ve also made changes and updated policies to ensure those cannot happen again.”

The zoo can apply for reaccreditation in September if the Association of Zoos and Aquarium rejects its appeal.

We hope they do not have to.

Institutions like the Columbus Zoo, Community Shelter Board and Equitas Health provide critical services to our community.

They cannot be allowed to self-destruct and the members of all of their boards of directors – where the buck stops – must be called on the carpet when they make bad and costly decisions or are sleeping on the job while others make bad and costly decisions.

There is far too much at stake for such lackadaisical oversight, which allows for recklessness, and in some cases, unabashed thievery.

— Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 15