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Zoo Gone Wild

The Oakland Zoo's expansion into Knowland Park would destroy rare habitat and cut off public access to open space. Can opponents stop the project before it's too late?



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The Zoological Society, too, continues to argue that blocking off part of a public park for conservation is a clear public park purpose and that the 21 acres of mitigation are inaccessible to the public. I hiked a section of it with Baker, who is 67 years old, and another advocate, who is 64 years old. It's rough terrain, but not inaccessible.

"The zoo is not taking anything," Parrott said, arguing that it is federal and state regulators that are requiring land be set aside for conservation.

Dehejia further argued that the society is adding important protections to parts of the park and that the conservation plan aligns nicely with the institution's broader mission: "It is a wonderful idea. It's going to protect the species. ... To have an endangered species is something we are very excited about. We are a zoo after all."

On a whim, Elise Bernstein decided to attend a board of trustees meeting at the Oakland Zoo in the fall of 2012. She was a member of the zoo and had visited often with her daughter and grandson since moving to the Eastmont neighborhood in East Oakland in 2009. By 2012, she was involved in the efforts to preserve Knowland Park and thought it would be useful to sit in on meetings of the board of trustees, which is the governing body of the East Bay Zoological Society.

The trustees, Bernstein recalled, seemed surprised to have a member of the public show up, but a staffer gave her an agenda packet. Bernstein observed the meeting and left quickly after it ended. But as she was walking toward her car in the parking lot, the staffer who had given her the agenda packet chased after her. "She came running out and said, 'Hey. Hey. Wait. Wait. Excuse me, do you have our financial report?'" Bernstein recalled. "And she took it back. She said, 'I'm sorry. This is not public information.'"

Bernstein said she later kicked herself for not even glancing down at the document. But the situation affirmed some of her suspicions about the Zoological Society's lack of transparency. "The public is entitled to have information about how our money is spent," she said. "This is a city operation. We own the zoo. ... And we own the park."

Critics of the California Trail project argue that the Zoological Society has, over the years, requested and received a significant amount of public funding without being open about its finances — with the organization often citing the fact that it is a private nonprofit. The ongoing lack of financial accountability, opponents say, is an additional red flag for the expansion.

As part of a $72 million capital campaign for the zoo's growth — which includes the California Trail project and a new veterinary hospital that opened in 2012 — the Zoological Society has relied on a range of public funding sources, totaling $24.5 million. Of that amount, $13.7 million comes from a 2002 Oakland bond measure financed by city property owners, $3.5 million from an East Bay Regional Park District measure financed by residents throughout the East Bay, $7 million from a California State Parks nature education grant, and $300,000 from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, a state agency.

The Zoological Society also receives additional funding from East Bay taxpayers for its current operations. Currently, the society receives about $485,000 annually from the city's general fund, about $500,000 from a city hotel tax, and roughly $600,000 from a regional property tax, Dehejia explained. The total of about $1.5 million in annual public funding makes up roughly 10 percent of the society's $14 million budget (a public funding rate that Dehejia said is below industry standards for zoos and aquariums).

Although a dedicated group of project opponents has requested and analyzed public records pertaining to the Zoological Society's current and future operations, it's hard to imagine anyone has spent more time scrutinizing the organization's finances than Jim Hanson, the conservation committee chair for the California Native Grasslands Association. Hanson provided me with extensive records and reports, documentation of records requests that went nowhere, and his own detailed analysis of the zoo expansion. "This is an environmental and financial fiasco," said Hanson, who first got involved in Knowland Park because of his interest in grasslands. "For the citizens of Oakland, it's a real tragic kick in the stomach in terms of economic development in the 21st century."

For starters, Hanson argued that missing financial reports, including ones that he said the Zoological Society is legally obligated to provide to the city, point to a lack of accountability and raise questions about the feasibility of the California Trail project.

For years, he and another Knowland Park advocate, Mimi Pulich, have requested from the city copies of the Zoological Society's "capital improvement budget," which the nonprofit is obligated to submit annually to the parks and recreation department, according to the terms of its management agreement. That report, the contract states, should include a spending plan, information on actual expenses, and a description of its current and future budget.

In 2013, in response to Pulich's request for those reports for 2005 through 2012, a city parks representative said no documents existed. The email, which Pulich shared with me, noted that the parks department had also consulted with the City Administrator's Office and the City Auditor's Office.

Beginning in 2013, the parks representative added in the email, the agency will be "requiring that the Zoological Society provide all reports agreed upon in the agreement." The missing reports and seemingly new commitment to hold the society accountable signaled to the activists that the nonprofit had clearly violated the terms of its own contract. "We're basically doing the city's job for them," Hanson said.

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