L.A. is one step closer to privatizing zoo
A proposal to potentially turn over management of the Los Angeles Zoo to a private operator was approved by a Los Angeles City Council committee Thursday. If the plan gets the OK of the full council next month, the city could begin soliciting proposals from prospective operators by the end of this year.
Council members also made a new request: that city analysts develop an alternative to privatization to see whether there are changes that can be made to save money and keep the zoo under city management.
That move was cheered by some zoo workers, who are wary of privatization because they might be transferred to other city departments, and by animal-rights activists, who worry that a zoo not managed by the city might be less transparent when it comes to animal welfare.
Councilman Herb Wesson, who sits on the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee that approved the plan, said the amended proposal will allow the city to consider the pros and cons of privatization.
"Basically, we're looking at plan A and B," Wesson said.
The city has operated the zoo and botanical gardens for 45 years, but like many city services and facilities, the attraction has recently faced budget cuts and staff reductions. Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana has warned that the zoo could face more cutbacks in the future, and even possible closure.
Speaking at the committee meeting Thursday, mayoral aide Jim Bickhart said analysts determined that the zoo, in tight economic times, was perhaps not one of those services.
"The zoo was identified as something that is important for the city but is not something we would do in a pinch," Bickhart said.
Privatizing management of the zoo would save nearly $20 million over the next five years, according to city analysts. Opponents of the plan question the savings and warn that privatization could mean steeper ticket prices for the zoo's 1.5 million annual visitors.
Councilman Ed Reyes on Thursday said any contract must include stipulations that operators could not raise admission prices sharply.
At the meeting, he and others also discussed measures to ensure that information about the care and condition of the animals is accessible to the public –- a sticking point for animal-rights activists.
Villaraigosa has proposed that a private operator have a board of directors that would hold public meetings, but Santana suggested an alternative: strengthening the oversight capabilities of the city's current advisory board of commissioners.
The proposal to look at an alternative to privatization calls for analysts to examine whether the city may be able to reap more money from changes at the zoo, including extending hours of operation, examining existing concessions contracts and growing animal feed instead of purchasing it.
Zoo director John Lewis has been instructed not to say what he thinks of the privatization plan, but on Thursday, he said some kind of change was necessary.
"What I'm in charge of is a city department that tries to be a zoo," he said.
-- Kate Linthicum at Los Angeles City Hall
Photo: Zoo patrons view a pair of Masai giraffes at the Los Angeles Zoo. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times