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The messy and very public break-up between the Dane County Executive’s Office and the Henry Vilas Zoological Society ended late last week the same way as many divorces — with one side reluctantly packing up boxes and moving out.

In this case, the society was sent packing by the county, and the split, like many, is peppered with accusations, counter-accusations, hard edges and hurt feelings.

Dane County officials initiated the break-up by not renewing a contract with the society, a 105-year-old organization that has been supporting zoo efforts for many decades through fundraising, concession sales and special events.

The county and the society have been linked since the mid 1980s, when Dane County took over operation of the zoo from the city of Madison.

“It’s unprecedented to shut down an organization that’s been so successful,” said society president Alison Prange. “I think the hardest thing about this is that we’re leaving on the high note of having the best organization we’ve ever had.”

County officials have promised visitors to its Vilas Zoo that the experience of walking the grounds, viewing the award-winning exhibits and their animals, attending educational camps and having lunch at the Glacier Grille will remain the same this week as they have always been.

Behind the scenes, though, the operational model the zoo has used for decades has been upended.

Two weeks ago, negotiators with the county Executive’s Office decided to end the partnership agreement with the society. County Executive Joe Parisi said financial questions and the possibility of the zoo losing its accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums led to the decision.

Society board members dispute both of those points, arguing that the breakdown in contract talks was the result of simple misunderstandings and not enough meetings by the negotiating teams.

Staff moves out

Society employees on Thursday began moving out of their office in the zoo’s Visitor Center. Each of its 13 full-time staffers were laid off over the weekend, along with about 50 part-time or seasonal employees who run concessions, clean or manage the gift shop.

All that remains of the society is its board and about $6 million it has raised that will be moved into a trust to be co-managed by the society and the county.

In the past 10 years, the society’s fundraising capabilities have grown dramatically, board members say. In that time, the society has given $17 million to the zoo, which included funding half of the award-winning Arctic Passage exhibit and the entirety of the Wisconsin Heritage exhibit, which houses the zoo’s badgers and all of the Animal Health Center. Its next building project was going to be a reconstruction of the zoo’s main entrance, Prange said.

The now-expired contract was approved five years ago, and the county and society had until Dec. 31 of last year to negotiate a new operating contract. When that deadline was not met, both sides agreed to extend the contract through March 31. They didn’t meet that deadline, either, as the county and society couldn’t reach agreement on finances and the role of the county’s zoo director.

“People all acting in good faith sometimes don’t reach an agreement,” county controller Chuck Hicklin said.

For about 10 months, the society and the county have been discussing updates to the agreement that has governed the society’s operations at the zoo. Amy Supple, vice chair of the society’s board, said the society made suggestions that would advance the strategic plan, which had just been completed the previous year by zoo staff with the society, the county and a consultant.

Parisi’s chief of staff, Josh Wescott, said the society was frequently attaching conditions or demands to increase funding for county staff, who manage all animal operations at the zoo, which would have threatened AZA accreditation.

AZA accreditation, which the zoo has maintained since 1976, is vital, zoo director Ronda Schwetz said at a County Board committee meeting last week. Accreditation allows the zoo to house endangered animals such as the polar bears, red panda and orangutans.

Schwetz did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Supple said accreditation is also important to the society and that it never intended to jeopardize it during negotiations or when it had proposed a contract in December.

“As Ronda (Schwetz) mentioned (at the committee meeting), we were surprised that we both participated in a strategic plan that apparently didn’t meet the standards,” Supple said. “We would have relied on her to guide that.”

The county contends the society never gave up demands to be independent from the zoo director’s authority, which could have threatened the AZA accreditation. But Supple said the suggested language was the result of a misunderstanding and could have been worked out in further negotiations.

“I think what’s been totally lost is the fact that we have a strong nonprofit with an operating reserve and endowment, and everybody knew that it was only designed to make sure that the free zoo is here for another hundred years,” Prange said.

Now, the county is working on a set of requirements for a new fundraising partnership to be decided later this year.

Parisi has said the society can apply for that role when proposals are requested this summer. Supple and Prange said they don’t think that will be possible. Without any staff to demonstrate fundraising ability, Supple said the skeleton crew of volunteer board members won’t be able to compete with other organizations.

Financials at issue

Another mounting problem in the negotiations, Wescott said, was the society’s lack of transparency with its financials. He said the society, without county input, diverted too much money into an endowment and reserve fund and that the county didn’t have access to the society’s financial records.

Hicklin said he had requested financial records from the society on several occasions and none of those requests have been denied.

Supple said Schwetz or one of her representatives were welcome to attend the society’s monthly board meetings where finances were discussed. Wescott disputed that, saying Schwetz was not allowed in many board meetings.

“There were multiple ways financial information was communicated and transparent to the county and the county staff,” Supple said. “Whether that got translated between them, we don’t know nor are we responsible for.”

The county’s negotiating team was also surprised that the society felt any need to amass extensive reserves, Hicklin said, since two of the major funding sources for the county operations at the zoo — the county (60 percent) and the city of Madison (20 percent) — have AAA bond ratings and the society only covers about 20 percent of the county’s operations at the zoo.

“To say that we have to have this large reserve and an endowment in case something happens to the zoo, I don’t see a lot happening to the zoo given the stability of all of the partners,” Hicklin said.

“People all acting in good faith sometimes don’t reach an agreement.” Chuck Hicklin, Dane County controller
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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.