If the discussion at Dallas City Hall today is any indication, that outta-nowhere proposal to privatize the Dallas Zoo and the Aquarium at Fair Park is all but a done deal. Expect the city to turn over the keys to the Dallas Zoological Society by October 1 following a vote next week by the city council.
At its briefing this morning and into the early afternoon, council members had but a few questions and concerns for DZS leadership, City Manager Mary Suhm and Park and Recreation director Paul Dyer, among them: How can the city sever the relationship if it it's unhappy with the results? How much oversight will the council have? How many of the nearly 300 Dallas Zoo employees will DZS hire back once they're fired per the terms of the deal? Will the city council get to approve the master plan and the raising of fees, should DZS choose to do so? And so forth.
Angela Hunt didn't like being rushed. Carolyn Davis didn't like being left out of the conversations leading up to the proposal's presentation to council today. But Ron Natinsky's comment more or less summed up the council's position on the rushed deal: It's "a partnership for us to move forward into the future," he said. Mayor Tom Leppert seized upon the word "partnership," preferring it over "privatization." To which Linda Koop added, "The stars are aligned to make a good decision for the zoo." To which Jerry Allen added that he's in "enthusiastic agreement this is the best thing for the city of Dallas."
This is being fast-tracked and then some: Leppert acknowledged that the council will be asked to vote on the contract at next Wednesday's meeting. That's just two weeks after word of this deal -- which Leppert says and the briefing docs show will save the city $4.75 million out of this year's budget -- first surfaced. The city will still pay a $10.8 million management fee to DZS's operating arm Dallas Zoo Management -- which is $1.2 million less than DZS originally asked for, according to its president and CEO, Michael Morris.
Only Hunt voiced concern about the speed with which this is being pushed through.
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"This is the first I've heard of this, when we got this briefing," Hunt said. "I am trying to understand why this is the first time council has heard of this when this is one of our largest public assets ... I get very nervous when we're making a major decision like this in a rushed fashion." But barring a few requests -- Hunt wants to know how other "nationally ranked zoos" run their operations -- she likewise appears content with the "substance" of the deal. It looks like "such a good thing for the city," she said. "My hat's off to the zoological society."