Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #119: Final Zoo Agreement

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Newell Aldrich on this issue.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.




  • Final Zoo Agreement
  • Zoo Agreement Changes Since October 29
  • Zoo Employees
  • Summary



Final Zoo Agreement

On Monday, December 17, the City Council passed the Zoo Management Agreement discussed in Urban Politics #118. The vote was 8-1, (Nicastro).

The agreement transfers management of the Woodland Park Zoo to the Woodland Park Zoological Society (commonly known as the Zoo Society) for a term of 20 years, with an option to renew for 10 years. The agreement leaves one major issue unresolved: the transfer of Zoo employees. This is described below in further detail

A number of changes have taken place in the agreement since the original version, released in late October; they are listed below; the link to Urban Politics 118 can be used as a reference.

Zoo Agreement Changes Since October 29

  • Clarifies the neighborhood parks at 50th and Phinney and 59th and Phinney are not to be used for Zoo purposes. The Parks Department retains the right to determine the uses of the parks and the Rose Garden, although any changes in use must be included in the Long Range Plan (LRP), or in an amendment to the LRP;
  • Approval of the parking garage is subject to City Council approval of the Zoo Long Range Plan; this will come before the Council early next year. Information about the LRP is included in UP #118 and UP #106;
  • If the Zoo Society fails to meet financing requirements twice in any 5 year period, the City can cancel the agreement;
  • The Zoo Society will implement policies and incentives to encourage Zoo visitors to use the garage;
  • RPZ: If the garage is not built by the end of 2004, the restriction on neighborhood Residential Parking Zones will be lifted. If the garage is built, the Zoo Society may pay one parking permit per household for two years;
  • Alternative Transportation: To help relieve overflow parking in the neighborhood, Zoo Society will continue to develop an alternative transportation plan in conjunction with King County Metro and the City’s policy office. The plan will provide incentives for improved transit, bicycle and pedestrian access, as well as bicycle corrals and transit options for major events; and improved transit, bicycle and pedestrian access will be built into all parking improvements. Zoo Society will also develop an employee trip reduction plan, dedicated employee carpool spaces, and explore extending transit pass subsidies to all zoo staff, adding a flexcar and participation in the guaranteed ride home program;
  • Although City Employees may voluntarily resign City employment and be hired by Zoo Society, no City position existing in the “Zoo Program” in the City’s Adopted Budget will be eliminated unless the change is adopted by the City Council by ordinance; nor an employee involuntarily transferred to Zoo Society from these positions;
  • An Annual Plan will be developed by the Zoo Society; the annual plan will have public comment periods; the Zoo Society will respond to comments in the Annual Report;
  • Zoo record on veterinary management and treatment of Zoo Animals in its care will be made available upon request;
  • The State Auditor can perform audits, if the City goes agrees;
  • Public involvement for major capital projects consistent with City Parks Department policies;
  • Neighborhood liaison-The Zoo Society agrees to designate a neighborhood liaison from both the Zoo Society Board and the Zoo Society staff to communicate with the Phinney Ridge, Wallingford, Fremont, and Greenlake communities on a regular basis. Zoo Society; added procedures for identifying neighborhood concerns, to be developed by early 2002, and added Fremont to the list of neighborhoods; The Neighborhood Liaison committee will also have a formal role in any decision by Zoo Society to consider implementation of an RPZ after completion of the parking structure;
  • Notice will be given Zoo Society board meetings by mail and on the internet approximately one week in advance, and a public comment period will be held;
  • A dispute resolution process is included;
  • Insurance section was added;
  • If a garage is added in Lower Woodland, it will be considered zoo premises (this would require approval of such a garage in the Long-Range Plan, which must be approved by the City Council);
  • Prior City approval shall be required for increases in admission charges greater than market rates for similar attractions;
  • The City audit section was expanded to include both Zoo operations and management, except for private fundraising activities and private donor information;
  • The Zoo Society shall have a code of ethics governing its board members, employees and activities consistent with applicable requirements of State and federal laws and American Zoo and Aquarium Association standards (they will be modifying their internal bylaws);

Zoo Employees

The agreement states the Zoo Society and the Parks Department will develop and propose an Employee Transition Plan for Zoo employees who work for the City of Seattle (Some Zoo employees currently work for the City of Seattle; others work for the Zoo Society) and present it to the City Council by December 31, 2002; however, any transition of employees from City employment to Zoo Society employment can only take place if the City Council approves such a changeover by ordinance. So in essence, the agreement delays resolution of any transition.


Over a third of the nation’s zoos and many of the most prominent ones, like New York’s, are operated by non-profit boards with a contractual relationship to the local municipality. The trend has been in this direction, according to fundraisers for the Zoo and our city staff, because private donors are not as motivated to contribute to governments as to non-profit organizations. Consequently, by expanding the private donor base a zoo can raise more funds than just relying on public financing to shelter their animals in the more expensive exhibits that reflect natural surroundings rather than on the more traditional lower cost caged presentations.

Ultimately, the agreement reflects the tension between the openness found in governments, and lack of openness usually found in private bodies. In shaping the current agreement I strove to add many suggestions I received from citizens to improve public accountability from the Zoo Society to the City. There were a number of others that I would have liked to add but were not included for lack of sufficient Council support.

There was some discussion of holding the agreement until the first Council meeting of 2002 (December 17 was the last Council meeting of 2001). A delay could have proved useful, but there was not a majority needed to hold. My concerns revolved around consultation with the City’s Risk Management division and I seriously doubt that a delay in the vote would have resulted in the Council making any significant changes.

The current agreement is not a perfect one but it does offer the Zoo Society an opportunity to raise additional funds, it does allow the City to level off our future funding commitment and it does allow the City to continue auditing the Zoo’s operations and management.

Although I will not be chairing the Parks Committee next year, I encourage the new Committee Chair (Peter Steinbrueck) to pursue the City Council’s oversight of the Zoo’s finances and operations in a diligent manner.

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