Thursday, August 7, 2008

The crux of the matter

Wanna hear what happened at the Memphis City Council Parks Committee meeting on Tuesday? Of course you do!

Please note that this is my personal account, not a verbatim report. But you can listen to the whole 31-minute shebang online, thanks to the Memphis City Council archives. You can also try to decipher the minutes. It may help to know that the members of the Parks Committee are: Jim Strickland (chair), Wanda Halbert (vice chair), Bill Boyd, Edmund Ford Jr., Reid Hedgepeth, and Myron Lowery.

Six of our supporters attended the meeting, so if you were there and want to add your observations in the comment section, please do. The Memphis Zoo was represented by President/CEO Chuck Brady, Board Chair Carol Prentiss, and Zoo Spokesmodel Brian Carter.

When it was CPOP's turn on the agenda, Councilman Strickland graciously offered me a seat at the table. Memphis Parks Director Cindy Buchanan was also asked to the table. The other council members present were Bill Boyd, Barbara Swearengen Ware, Edmund Ford Jr., Wanda Halbert, and Reid Hedgepeth. Councilman Ford left the room at some point, and Councilwoman Janis Fullilove entered at some point.

After I finished our presentation, several council members spoke. Chairman Strickland said that the Zoo's plan for the 17 acres is to build a boardwalk similar to The Nature Conservancy boardwalk in Rossville, and he pointed out that I worked on that project. I said something like: a boardwalk is not a terrible idea, per se, but we have serious concerns about the Zoo building any more exhibits in our forest given what happened last time. I also said that the Rossville nature trail had to be a boardwalk because it crosses a cypress-tupelo swamp.

Councilman Hedgepeth took the time to explain that the Teton Trek exhibit will represent a "savanna-type habitat," therefore it was necessary for the Zoo to remove the forest because "you can't have trees in a savanna." Thanks for clearing that up, Councilman.

Roy told me afterward, "Well, thank goodness they aren't building a Moon exhibit. Then it couldn't even have an atmosphere!"

Councilwoman Ware, who is not a member of the Parks Committee, told us that Memphis is the "laughingstock of the whole country" because we failed to build Interstate 40 through Overton Park. She said that the Memphis Zoo's continued expansion into our park is necessary -- "It's called progress!" -- and asked, "How many people walk through the woods?" I assumed she was asking me, so I started to invite her to join us for a nature hike. But she cut me off, saying, "Obviously that was a rhetorical question."


Councilwoman Ware concluded by telling us that if we don't allow the Zoo to keep expanding into our park, "we might just as well have the interstate." My silly little April Fool's joke is starting to look more and more like a prophecy.

Councilwoman Wanda Halbert noted a parallel between the behavior of the notoriously secretive Riverfront Development Corporation and the behavior of the Memphis Zoo, as John Branston also noted last month. She spoke up for the rights of citizens, saying that council members should be concerned whenever a citizen group asserts that public decisions are being made without public input. Thank you, Councilwoman Halbert, for taking us seriously.

Finally, our friend and admirer Chuck Brady was given the opportunity to respond to our presentation. He stated that every new exhibit ever built at the Memphis Zoo has been approved by the City Council, with public involvement.

Help me out here, Mr. Brady. When was the public given a chance to comment on your plans for Teton Trek? And for that matter, when did you ask the City Council for their approval?

I just finished searching the online record of Council actions from 2004 through 2007 using the keyword "zoo" and this is all I found:

  • In August, 2004, the City Council appropriated $225,000 for maintenance at the Memphis Zoo and $1,250,000 for construction of the Northwest Passage exhibit.
  • In August, 2006, the City Council appropriated $1,000,000 for construction of the Northwest Passage exhibit.
  • In December, 2007, the City Council heard a 2006 audit report on the Memphis Zoo and appropriated $250,000 for maintenance.

I also hunted through the City Council's monthly archives for January and February of 2008, looking for any reference to the Memphis Zoo or Teton Trek, and found nothing. The Teton Trek clearcut was finished by the end of February.

Now, I'm not saying that Mr. Brady lied to the City Council. Or even that he's spreading "misinformation," as he accused me of doing because I used the word clearcut to describe a clearcut.

I'm just asking two simple questions, that's all.
  1. When did the Memphis Zoo allow any public involvement in the planning process for the Teton Trek exhibit?
  2. When did the City Council approve the Teton Trek exhibit?

Wait, I just thought of two more questions!
  1. When is the Memphis Zoo going to allow any public involvement in the planning process for the Chickasaw Bluffs exhibit?
  2. When is the Memphis Zoo going to ask the City Council to approve the Chickasaw Bluffs exhibit?

Okay, I guess that about covers it.