A new plan for sweeping reforms at the Toronto Zoo calls for the removal of all city councillors from the board by December and an end to city funding within a decade.
The changes were endorsed by members of the zoo board at a special meeting Wednesday and would create a new non-profit foundation – the Toronto Zoological Society – to run the city-owned facility, with oversight from a 24-person board made up of corporate, business and community leaders, with only one citizen appointment from the city. Six councillors now sit on the 14-member board.
The proposed shakeup, which still requires the support of council, follows a controversial decision last year that saw city politicians become directly involved in the fate of the zoo’s three aging elephants – a move that led to the loss of the Scarborough facility’s accreditation. It also comes as Toronto explores options for privatizing the vast facility, which now relies on $11-million in operating funding annually from the city or about one-quarter of its budget.
“We have to take the politics out of this board,” said Toronto Councillor Mark Grimes, describing the involvement of city council in the decision to move the three elephants as a “fiasco.”
Councillor Josh Colle, also a zoo board member, said the changes will open the door to new fundraising and partnership opportunities, but also are required because of council’s actions last year regarding the elephants and talk of privatization.
“Those two things are the guns at our heads,” he said. “Yes, it is about opportunity and growing the zoo, but it is also because our governance shortcomings were laid bare.”
The city is expected to issue a request for expressions of interest for operating the zoo as early as next month. Councillor Colle said he hopes the board’s suggested reforms will pre-empt that.
Not all board members were convinced. Councillors Glen De Baeremaeker and Raymond Cho voted against the plan. Councillor De Baeremaeker, an outspoken animal advocate who worked to get the zoo’s elephants moved to a California sanctuary against objections from the board, questioned whether enough money could be raised to replace city funding. He dismissed talk of possible privatization, saying it would never get the required support of council.
Both councillors objected to the removal of all elected officials from the city-owned facility and Councillor Cho suggested the Dec. 15 deadline for implementation was unrealistic.
Cal Bricker, chair of the zoo board’s governance committee, argued the removal of all councillors is an important reform measure. “We are at a breaking point here,” he said. “We don’t need city councillors on the board any more. The city has control in other ways. We just need to move to a new place.”
The reforms envision the creation of a “Living Campus Zoo,” nestled in the newly created Rouge National Park. The zoo recently signed a partnership agreement with the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, which would also have a seat on the new board.