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The Globe and Mail

City gauges interest in zoo, defies wishes of board

The zoo's African elephants, Toka, Thika and Iringa.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In a move that has blindsided members of the zoo's own board, the City of Toronto is searching for someone to run the city-owned attraction.

The city issued a request for expressions of interest late on Monday, looking for "innovative, creative and sustainable" options for the Toronto Zoo as a first step in its "sale, lease or operation."

The move is the latest challenge in a tumultuous year for the facility, which is struggling with plans to move its trio of aging elephants, an issue that resulted in the loss of its accreditation. It also comes as the zoo's own board is proposing a major restructuring aimed at ending the influence of city hall and the zoo's reliance on city funds.

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Councillor Josh Colle, a zoo board member, said he had no warning of the request – a move at odds with the board's wishes.

"I'm surprised and disappointed," Mr. Colle said. As a board member who supported shifting to an arms-length non-profit foundation to run the zoo, he questioned the timing of the request.

"This puts us in a bit of a bind and underscores the basic problem with the governance at the zoo," he said. "Why would anyone want to support the zoo as a donor or a member when the city continues to meddle?"

At a special meeting last month, the zoo board endorsed a plan that would remove all politicians from the board and gradually eliminate the city's operating grant. Under the proposed model, a non-profit foundation would operate the facility, the largest of its kind in Canada.

Mayor Rob Ford has said the city should get out of the zoo business, and last year council asked city manager Joe Pennachetti to explore options.

Martin Herzog, a manager in Mr. Pennachetti's office, said the city manager is obliged to follow that directive. If zoo board members want their model to be considered, he said they can submit a proposal as part of the formal process.

Mr. Colle said he was hoping that process would be put on hold given the actions of the zoo board. He described the model endorsed by the zoo board as "a much more thoughtful and elegant way forward for the zoo. I think most councillors, given the option, would support that."

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Proposals are due Nov. 26. They will be reviewed by city staff, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and Parks Canada. Recommendations will go to the executive committee and city council.

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