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Dane County, Vilas Zoo society exchange complaints proving 'contentious' relationship

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Henry Vilas Zoo

Dane County's relationship with the Henry Vilas Zoological Society, an integral component of zoo operations for more than a century, may be coming to an acrimonious end as the contract with the group winds down amid county complaints of bloated cash reserves, a ballooning payroll and lavish compensation for the group’s chief executive. Meanwhile, the society levels charges of harassment of society staff by the zoo's director.  

The hard feelings have erupted as renewal of the contract between the zoo — a highly regarded institution that remains one of the few free zoos left in the nation — and the zoological society heads toward a March 31 deadline, with the county charging that the society's proposal to boost donor interest by staging "animal trainings" for spectator purposes puts crucial zoo accreditation at risk. 

County Executive Joe Parisi Tuesday announced that the county would seek proposals from fundraising organizations to replace the venerable zoo support group, which has been working hand-in-hand with the county since 1914.

"Reluctantly, we are at a place where doing what's in the best interest of the zoo and its animals requires seeking new partners," Parisi said in a letter to the society Tuesday evening. 

He said the county will be requesting proposals in coming weeks for its "next fundraising partner." 

"It's our expectation the Zoo Society will compete for that business partnership," he wrote.

That announcement came on the same day the county released the results of an investigation into a complaint lodged last fall by the society alleging harassment of society staff by zoo director Ronda Schwetz. 

In the complaint, the society complained that Schwetz called zoological society executive director Alison Prange a crude slang term for female genitalia at a social gathering at the home of the zoo's former deputy director. 

The complaint also alleged that Schwetz tried to recruit a society employee to work for the zoo, shared confidential information about Prange's salary with a zoo employee, shared a hotel room with a person, whose name is redacted from the report, during a zoo function in Seattle, and that Prange saw Schwetz "visibly intoxicated" at the conference. 

Prange also supplied a statement detailing other issues dating back to 2013, including that Schwetz was intoxicated at another conference in 2016. 

An investigation by the county's human resources and corporation counsel offices found no reason to discipline Schwetz, but it placed the complaint squarely in the context of the heated contract negotiations that led to Parisi's announcement on Tuesday.

"It became apparent during this investigation that the relationship between Zoo staff and HVZS is contentious," the report states. "There is particular tension between Schwetz and Prange. While this working relationship between the organizations was somewhat strained even before Schwetz and Prange were involved, zoo staff that predated Prange's arrival reported that it has escalated since her hire."  

Prange was hired to lead the zoological society in 2013. 

The county is also investigating a complaint by the society against a researcher working on a grant administered by the society and the University of Wisconsin, the details of which haven't been released. 

The allegations are a sordid snapshot of a larger squabble over proposed zoo practices that the society contends are standard at other zoos across the country, but the county says encroach on the authority of zoo management and threaten accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

The two sides have been embroiled in negotiations for months over the contract, which was supposed to end at the beginning of the year, but was extended until March 31 while the two sides tried to come to agreement. That hasn’t happened, but Parisi’s chief of staff, Josh Wescott, said the county will continue programs currently run by the society, including concessions, rides and education, without interruption.

“Many of the staff there now will be hired as county employees,” he said.

The county also plans to boot the society from its current home in the zoo’s visitors’ center.

Parisi attacks society plans, operations

Parisi, through letters, memos and press releases, has blasted the society in recent days, charging that the group was strong-arming the county for funds raised on county property, with county resources and through the exploitation of the world-class zoo’s animals.

Parisi has blasted the society's proposal to increase its access to zoo grounds  and animal interactions with zookeepers to draw donors. The society wants to offer more special after-hour events like special animal feedings and private shows for zoo donors.

“Your organization’s proposal amounted to creation of a carnival, instead of a sanctuary for education on important matters of science such as climate change and species survival,” Parisi told Tom Hanson, chairman of the zoological society’s board, in a sharply worded letter on March 8.

In his letter to Hanson, Parisi chastised the society’s “push to increase its own staff,” which he said numbered 68, and which he said fostered a competition for dollars that should be used to make improvements at the zoo. 

“Right now, too many hard-earned dollars given by moms, dads, and kids are going directly to an enterprise that is supposed to raise money for the zoo,” Parisi wrote Monday in a press release. “This enterprise now funds more positions for itself than what county government uses to run the entire zoo.”

In an interview, Hanson said he doesn’t know why the county has taken such an adversarial approach.

“We had 10 months of negotiations that were suggesting that it was very collaborative,” he said. “We had contributed additional dollars. We thought things were on a path that there was a continuation of this partnership.”

Then, about a month ago, he said: “Things changed very quickly. We’re bewildered why the change.”

But he acknowledged the possibility that the harassment issue, which he said was brought to the county's attention last summer, fall and winter, could be contributing to the impasse.

"We were not using this as leverage," he said. "I don't know if they were using it for leverage." 

He defended the lodging of the complaint, saying, "The society has an obligation to ensure that we've got a workplace free of harassment."  

Parisi also took the society to task for socking away more than $6 million, mostly in endowment and reserve funds, which Hanson said could provide stability in the event that long stretches of inclement weather, an economic downturn or other factors slow concession sales and make it hard to pay vendors and meet county obligations.

"We have the means to make sure that we can continue to make those payments, always for the support and advancing of the mission of the zoo," he said.

The proposal the society handed the county would require zoo staff to help coordinate "behind the scenes engagement opportunities for donors and potential donors." It would give the society exclusive rights to hold events and allow the group to charge admissions at the free zoo, a provision Wescott said runs afoul of the deed for the land the zoo is on.

It would also give the society more power by allowing shared responsibility for a number of functions, including animal encounters, which Wescott said would threaten zoo certification.

The proposal also called for a set number of “animal trainings per day” that the society could publicize, starting with three such events per day for the first year of the contract, four during the second year and five during the third year. The level of financial support would increase during those years.

A schedule for each training would be supplied in advance to the society, and zoo staff would have to provide the society with photographs and video of zoo keepers training animals “on a regular basis.”

The society’s proposal, Parisi said, was roundly blasted by Association of Zoos and Aquariums officials in a Jan. 30 phone call to board members.

Parisi unloaded a laundry list of complaints against the group, including that it shakes down volunteers for payments.

“Forcing people to pay to volunteer their time and talents to help young people learn about conservation undermines the values of access and inclusion for all that come with operating a free zoo,” Parisi said in his press release on Monday.

Parisi continued his attack on Tuesday when he sent an email to County Board members detailing information from the group’s 2017 IRS financial documents, including that Prange, the society's director, received a total of $177,606 in compensation that year, while her predecessor, who left in 2013, earned about $75,000.

In addition, Parisi wrote, the society paid a local employment firm, QTI, $922,147 for staff salaries in 2017, the last year in which the society filed its IRS financial statement, while it paid out $575,000 in 2014, an increase of more than 60 percent.

Parisi also noted that the society raised $3.7 million in revenue in 2017. And while it incurred expenditures of more than $2.7 million, only about $855,400 went to the zoo.

Last year the society’s contribution dropped to $595,000.

Hanson said the 2018 decrease was due to one position that was left vacant and an adjustment for an accounting error in previous years. He said the society has paid what the county has asked under the contract.

“The county sends us an invoice every year, we pay that,” he said. “The county also has made requests for conservation, education, animal welfare. They’re driving those programs. We think those programs are very important. They made a request, we sent them a check.”

Parisi contended that the society had made increasing its financial support contingent upon access to more after-hours events for donors, 10 to 15 of which were held last year, according to county officials.

“Over time, accessing the dollars raised in a county owned facility, on county grounds, somehow became a point of negotiation instead of being repurposed exclusively into Zoo operations as should have been our shared intent,” Parisi wrote.

Hanson bristled at the notion that the society sought to exploit the zoo’s animal population. He said other zoos similarly invite groups to watch scheduled feeding, animal training and other zoo functions that interest potential donors.

“This notion that it would be a carnival, that’s not the case. It’s what the zookeepers do every day,” he said. “We just want to have that schedule so if you have the desire and if you’re looking at coming to the zoo tomorrow, we want to be able to say, ‘At 10 o’clock, you can experience this animal enrichment activity.' That’s what was proposed.”

He said despite Parisi’s blistering criticism, he still held out hope of coming to an agreement.

“Our objective is we want to get back to the table,” he said. “We’ve had a successful relationship between the county and the society. We want to continue that. Our objective is the advance the mission of the zoo.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.