March 11, 2019; Austin American-Statesman
It has now become a pattern: An organization lapses into inattention at the board level and relinquishes its oversight responsibilities. The CEO succumbs to bad behavior. Someone blows a whistle, or something truly disastrous occurs that catches the attention of a journalist—perhaps after years of ethical lapses—and…the board and the executive refuse to make way for new leadership until forced.
So it goes at the Austin Zoo, where the nonprofit has been embroiled in a scandal of poor animal treatment, and some staff were let go after several members wrote up a 54-page list of the bad conditions and practices under the leadership of Patti Clark, who was both the executive director and board president. Clark has now stepped down from the board president position, but the board of the zoo, in their infinite wisdom, have kept her as executive director.
NPQ and other experts oppose the practice of one person holding both seats of responsibility. It can obfuscate the hierarchy of responsibility and, even if nothing is actually hidden, it can be perceived as avoiding transparency. A board’s responsibility is to oversee the executive director; one person cannot take both roles.
The zoo’s current seven-member board has four new members, but it kept three who had backed Clark during the claims by zookeepers of mismanagement and mistreatment of animals. Ex-zookeepers report that the new members include vendors to the zoo, as well as friends of Clark. In an astoundingly bad move, Clark will remain a member of the board but will have no voting rights. As the executive director and a non-voting member, it is hoped that Clark will not be present for executive sessions of the board, allowing for open discussion of the zoo’s policies and procedures going forward.
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The board appears to be addressing the conflicts with a new governance committee that is reviewing the board’s structure. Bernie Tejada is serving as interim chair while the governance committee goes over its structure.
“We appreciate Patti’s leadership and service on the board,” Tejada said in the email. “After seeking out the advice of experts in nonprofit governance and following thoughtful discussions, the Board and Patti agreed that, moving forward, it is in the best interest of the Zoo to separate the Board and the Zoo’s management.”
There are plans to protest management policies this Sunday, March 17th, and on March 21st. Three zookeepers were fired recently for, as they put it, talking to the press or refusing to answer questions. Casi Cortez, a former zookeeper, is disappointed that the three board members who supported Clark remain. Cortez gives all of the credit for any of the changes so far to community pressure on the zoo. “We’re still pushing for the original requests in the petition: making sure we have an independent board, following through with a euthanasia policy.”
“This is exactly what we were saying [recently]: If she steps down, it is going to look good on paper, but she has created a board that will answer to her,” said Tammy Greenblum, a recent board member who resigned amid disagreements about how to respond to the zookeepers’ letter.
The board governance committee has a great deal to do—creating an accountable body that follows the best nonprofit guidelines, along with creating zoo policies that will treat animals and staff with respect. Hopefully, they will do their homework; they could start that research at NPQ.—Marian Conway