I did a glowing column last week about Honolulu Zoo Director Baird Fleming and his excellent stewardship of the zoo without having a clue that the much admired Fleming was going to quit. I am surprised and disappointed. I also feel a bit duped.

Fleming and I talked in two interviews about what he planned to do to regain the national accreditation the zoo lost in March. We discussed almost everything except for the most important thing — Fleming would not be around to guide the zoo’s improvements.

I’ve since found out that Fleming had been planning to leave the Honolulu Zoo for a while. He had applied for and was a finalist for a job as director of the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas and he was being interviewed by Albuquerque BioPark Zoo in New Mexico. Interestingly, the Little Rock Zoo was offering a salary of up to $134,500, which is less than the about $164,000 Fleming is making here.

According to an article on the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s website, when Fleming discovered his job search at the Little Rock Zoo would be made public, he withdrew his name from the list of five finalists.

Zoo Director Baird Fleming with the cow Lani Moo in the children’s zoo section.
Zoo Director Baird Fleming with the cow Lani Moo in the children’s zoo section. Fleming is leaving the Honolulu Zoo for a job in New Mexico, something Baird — and possibly city officials — kept from voters until after the election. City and County of Honolulu

Fleming’s resignation from Honolulu Zoo is effective Dec. 15. He will be leaving then to work in Albuquerque in the city’s BioPark Zoo as the deputy CEO. His family is already on the mainland.

What makes me feel cynical is thinking that someone in Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office must have known that Fleming was planning to quit. You have to wonder if the information was purposefully kept quiet until after the election.

Fleming is the fifth Honolulu Zoo director to resign in six years.  The mayor’s re-election opponent Charles Djou had made the zoo’s revolving door departure of directors an election issue. He called it “an on-going city management disaster.”

There was also the city charter amendment voters approved this election to give the zoo a guaranteed 0.5 percent of property tax revenues each year as a reliable funding source to help the zoo regain its accreditation.

Voters might have thought twice about giving the zoo such a big chunk of tax money — about $6.5 million annually from property tax collections — if they knew the problem of the zoo directors quitting was going to continue.

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.”

Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin said in a phone interview Sunday he was surprised and disappointed by Fleming’s departure. He said he first found out about it like most of us did — in the city’s news release Friday.

Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin thinks it might be time for a special investigation into the zoo and its problems.

Martin had introduced two successful measures to guarantee the zoo a new reliable funding source.

He said it was the right thing to do to help the zoo get back on track with the national accreditation agency, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Association spokesman Rob Vernon said he could not comment when I called him Friday to find out how Fleming’s departure will affect re-accreditation.

Martin says, “Something needs to be done here to address the bigger issue: why has there been a constant turnover in zoo directors?”

He says he hopes to find out more from Fleming and the mayor about what’s causing so many directors to leave in such a short period of time.

He also thinks it might be time to convene a special council investigation committee with subpoena powers “to get at the root of the problem, to try to fix the problem.”

Guy Kaulukukui, the director of enterprise services for the city, fielded questions about Fleming’s resignation Friday.

Fleming was not at the news conference and has not returned calls I have made every day to his personal cell phone.

I want to know why Fleming is unhappy here and what he thinks must be done to improve relations between the next zoo director and the city.

Kaulukukui says the city will begin a national search for a new director. In the meantime, Bill Balfour, a former city parks director, will serve as temporary zoo administrator.

I agree with Martin that it’s counterproductive to immediately launch a big search without first taking a hard look at the city’s own responsibility for the continuing trouble it has retaining zoo directors. The last thing the zoo needs is director No. 6 followed by director No. 7 quitting.

Martin says, “It doesn’t make any sense if the city doesn’t understand the root of the problem.”

Fleming’s departure may be a signal the city can no longer ignore, that it’s time consider transferring the day-by-day operations of the zoo to a private entity to work in partnership with the city.

The Honolulu Zoo sits on land that belongs to the Kapiolani Charitable Trust.
The Honolulu Zoo is losing its fifth director in six years. . Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

The San Diego Zoo and many of the most successful zoos in the county are run by nonprofits with government ownership and oversight.

“Ultimately this is the direction we need to move,” Martin says. “It is the way many zoos are going now. We need to talk to the Honolulu Zoo Society to hear its thoughts.”

Martin says such an arrangement would have to be flexible to deal with the concerns of public worker unions and the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society.

Former Honolulu Mayors Jeremy Harris and Mufi Hannemann both tried to change the management of the Honolulu Zoo into a public-private partnership but their efforts failed.

Barb Thacker worked for the Honolulu Zoo for 20 years as a zoo educator and volunteer coordinator before resigning in May.

“A public private partnership is the way to go to free the zoo from politics and make it more stable as it moves into the future,” Thacker says. “My heart bleeds for the zoo. I am so sorry it is in this environment of uncertainty now.”

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