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Los Angeles Zoo privatization plan advances

A plan to potentially turn over management of the Los Angeles Zoo to a private operator was approved by a City Council committee Thursday.

If the plan gets the OK of the full council next month, the city could start soliciting proposals from prospective operators by the end of this year.

But council members also made a new request that could put a snag in privatization plans. They have asked city analysts to see whether any changes could be made to save money — and keep the zoo under city management.

The move was cheered by some zoo workers, who are wary of privatization because they risk being transferred to other city departments, and by animal-rights activists, who worry that a zoo not managed by the city might be less transparent concerning animal welfare.

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Councilman Herb Wesson, who sits on the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee that approved the plan, said the amended proposal would allow the city to consider the pros and cons of turning over management to another entity.

“Basically, we’re looking at plan A and B,” Wesson said.

The city has operated the zoo and botanical gardens for 45 years, but like many city services and facilities, the attraction has faced budget cuts and staff reductions. The city’s chief administrative officer, Miguel Santana, has warned that the zoo could face more cutbacks and even possible closure.

The city started looking at the possibility of a public-private partnership at the zoo two years ago, in the midst of the recession. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asked analysts to reevaluate the city’s core services.

According to mayoral aide Jim Bickhart, analysts determined that the zoo, in tight economic times, was perhaps not one of those services.

“The zoo was identified as something that is important for the city but is not something we would do in a pinch,” Bickhart told the committee.

Privatizing management of the zoo would save nearly $20 million over the next five years and bring L.A. up to date with many cities that have made deals with private companies or nonprofits, according to city analysts.

But opponents of the plan question the savings and warn that privatization could mean steeper ticket prices for the zoo’s 1.5 million annual visitors.

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Councilman Ed Reyes on Thursday said any contract must include stipulations that operators could not raise admission prices sharply. Lawmakers also discussed measures to ensure that information about the care and condition of the animals is accessible to the public — a sticking point for animal-rights activists.

Villaraigosa has proposed that a private operator be required to have a board of directors that would hold public meetings, but Santana suggested an alternative: strengthening the oversight capabilities of the city’s current advisory board of commissioners.

The proposal to look at an alternative to privatization calls for analysts to examine whether the city may be able to reap more money from changes at the zoo, including extending hours of operation, examining existing concessions contracts and growing some animal feed instead of purchasing it.

Zoo Director John Lewis would not say what he thinks of the privatization plan, but on Thursday he said city bureaucracy and budget-crunching has hindered his work.

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“What I’m in charge of is a city department that tries to be a zoo,” Lewis said.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com


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