Honolulu Zoo director Baird Fleming informed Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the city’s managing director Oct. 31 that he had accepted a position at a zoo on the mainland.

This was eight days before voters approved a controversial charter amendment to give half a percent of the property tax revenues annually to the zoo as a steady source of income to help it regain the national accreditation it lost in March.

That revelation comes from Honolulu Department of Enterprise Services Director Guy Kaulukukui, whose department oversees the zoo.

Kaulukukui says when Fleming told the mayor and the managing director he was planning to leave, managing director Roy Amemiya tried find money to increase his salary to urge him to change his mind.

Fleming’s annual salary already had been hiked in July to $165,000.

“The managing director was searching for additional money to keep Baird Fleming. All of us wanted him to stay,” says Kaulukukui.

Fleming is the city’s fifth zoo director to quit in six years.

Kaulukukui says Fleming submitted his official letter of resignation Nov. 17, the day before his departure was made public.

Some voters say they might have thought twice before approving the zoo’s the new source of funding — about $6.5 million annually from property tax collections — if they had known that the revolving door of zoo directors was continuing.

Honolulu Zoo Orangutan. 21 nov 2016
An orangutan was one of the animals on display at the Honolulu Zoo earlier this week. The zoo is losing yet another director, the fifth in six years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

According to an article on the Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s website, Fleming was a finalist for the zoo director’s job at the Little Rock Zoo but he removed his name from the list of five finalists when he discovered his job hunt would be made public. He eventually landed a job in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he will be going to work at the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo as the deputy CEO.

Hawaii Kai resident and community advocate Natalie Iwasa says, “It’s like so many other things. The public was short of information that had it known prior might have changed the vote.”

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums had yanked the Honolulu Zoo’s accreditation for its lack of steady taxpayer funding and also because of its many recent changes in leadership.

Fleming’s resignation is effective Dec. 15. His family is already on the mainland.

I spoke with Fleming briefly by phone Wednesday. He declined to talk about why he is leaving but he says the reason will come out eventually.

“It is something that is best handled internally,” Fleming says.

He said his salary at the Albuquerque Zoo is less than his salary at the Honolulu Zoo, but he says the cost of living is much less in Albuquerque than here.

Honolulu Zoo Flamingo. 21 nov 2016
The flamingo is a popular attraction at the Honolulu Zoo. The zoo will soon get a dedicated funding from city property taxes. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Fleming said he didn’t want to say anything more on the record other than to say, “I have never worked with such a wonderful team of people. The whole island is filled with the sweetest people I have ever met.”

Some zoo staffers said Fleming had complained about his frustration working with the city to achieve improvements the zoo needed to keep its accreditation.

Another reality of Fleming’s departure is that the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo where he’s going is AZA-accredited. This will significantly help his career.  To stay here, while the Honolulu Zoo struggles to regain its accreditation, could hinder his ability to move up in any zoo system in the future.

Kaulukukui say he is disappointed that Fleming chose not speak publicly about his reasons for leaving the Honolulu Zoo or to say where he was going.

“I had hoped he would have been able to do it at the news conference when we announced his departure,” says Kaulukukui. “I think he could have answered a lot of questions about why and where he was going instead of leaving it all hanging out there to make people have to try and connect the dots themselves.”

He says he is rewriting the job description for the next director of the Honolulu Zoo to make it clear that the director must be someone who not only cares for the animals but also is responsible for running a zoo as a business.

Kaulukukui says he can understand why some prospective job applicants might be leery because of the past turnover of directors, but he believes the zoo is in the best position it’s been in a long time to hire an outstanding new director.

He cites the $165,000 annual salary that’s in line with what similar sized zoos on the mainland offer and the zoo’s new guaranteed source of city funding.

Honolulu Zoo Indian Elephant visitors enjoy the exhibit. 21 nov 2016
Visitors gather outside the Indian elephant pen at the zoo. Officials say they hope to have a new director in place by July. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kaulukukui says the zoo already has a limited public-private partnership with the Honolulu Zoo Society. He does not see a need to turn over the zoo’s management to a private partner as a way of improving the zoo.

He says the city expects to launch a nationwide search for a new director in 90 days and to hire a new director no later than July 1.

“The Honolulu Zoo is primed to be led by another dynamic leader,” says Kaulukukui.

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