The zoo at City Hall - Page 2

Hearings explore the deadly tiger attack and its ramifications

Nonetheless, Podell told us he believes the director "is being railroaded and lynched."

But critics of the privatization deal have renewed calls for greater scrutiny. "I've always been skeptical of this public-private arrangement," Sup. Tom Ammiano told the Guardian by phone. "[Zoological Society leaders] look at what makes a profit first. In itself, that's not bad, but what are you sacrificing with that?"

City taxpayers will most likely sacrifice plenty in lawsuit awards and legal bills. Within a week of the Christmas Day debacle, the surviving victims hired celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos. City Attorney Dennis Herrera and his staff have already spent numerous billable hours jousting with Geragos in a high-profile spate over potential evidence. During the public hearing, Herrera and Geragos were down the street in Superior Court arguing over whether the city can search the victims' car and their cell phones. As Ammiano put it, "This whole thing is probably going to be in lawyer land for a good while to come."

In the end, the privatization of the Zoo — hailed by advocates as the best way to bring needed funds to the facility — could very well cost taxpayers even more than expected. Indemnification clauses in the Zoo contract ostensibly absolve San Francisco of any legal jeopardy, but a separate clause clearly states that the city is liable for any "preexisting conditions." The grotto breached by the tiger on Christmas Day is almost 70 years old.

Officials won't speak on the record about potential city liability, but they privately say they won't be surprised if there are legal battles between the society and San Francisco over who has to pay the victims. Further blurring the line between the public and the private sector, the society has retained the services of former city attorney Louise Renne — the very person who negotiated the original lease agreement on behalf of the city. At the hearing, she told us she did not expect any problems between her former boss, the city, and her new client, the Zoo. "But to tell you the truth," she added with a smile, "I haven't even looked at [the agreement] in years."

Sup. Sean Elsbernd, whose district includes the Zoo, voiced support for keeping the facility in private hands. But he did pledge that "if it comes down to a question of whether the city will pay for anything [the Zoological Society] did negligently, we will not.... They will pay for their negligence if negligence is found." Elsbernd has scheduled a hearing on the Zoo's woes for Jan. 28 before the Government and Oversight Committee, which he chairs, while Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has called for a hearing by the Budget Committee.

Ammiano told us, "The history of the Zoo has been controversial, especially since [privatization], and we just need to be brutally honest about everything."

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