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Wednesday, November 3,2010

Bullied out of the zoo?

Controversy surrounds the firing of the former Potter Park Zoological Society director

by Andy Balaskovitz

The former director of the Potter Park Zoological Society was fired after she defied two Ingham County commissioners, her husband says.


Diane McNeil, who was fired in March after 25 years at the Zoological Society, refused to disclose financial records of the society — a private nonprofit in charge of fund-raising and education at the zoo — without first checking with the society board of directors, her husband, Tom McNeil, says.


That same 11-member board voted to fire McNeil shortly after commissioners Rebecca Bahar- Cook and Deb Nolan sent a letter to the president, expressing their concerns that McNeil would not readily share fund-raising numbers with them. Both commissioners serve on the county’s zoo advisory board.


One board member says the rest of the board “panicked” when the commissioners threatened to dissolve the society if McNeil was not dealt with.


“The board panicked at the thought of being dissolved,” said Michele Fox, who worked at the zoo for more than 10 1/2 years. She said she was one of two board members who abstained from voting.


The Potter Park Zoological Society and the Potter Park Zoo are separate entities. The society is a private nonprofit, funded by donations and revenue from admissions, food and gifts at the zoo. The zoo is run by the Ingham County Parks Department and is funded by taxpayers. As part of the contract between the society and the county, the county reserves the right to dissolve the society after giving 60 days’ notice.


McNeil, 62, was the society director for five years after volunteering at the zoo for 20.


Fox and Tom McNeil wonder what right the county government has in meddling with the financial and employment information of a private entity. The commissioners say that, although separate, the society and the county work closely, especially as they unroll changes from the zoo’s 2009 Master Plan.


City Pulse learned from several sources that under its agreement with the society, the county cannot involve itself in the society’s hiring process. However, City Pulse was unable to find out whether the county is restricted on involving itself in other employee decisions, such as firing. Efforts to see the contract were rebuffed by Becky Bennett, the clerk for the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. She told City Pulse it would have to file a Freedom of Information Act request.


The commissioners also took issue with the fact that McNeil’s daughter, Renee Fischman, worked as an office manager at the society while McNeil was director. Bahar-Cook and Nolan thought this gave the “appearance of nepotism” within the society and opened the door to fraudulent accounting, even though there is no evidence of that.


“I was unhappy with that arrangement,” Nolan said. “There’s the perception that if you’re a fund-raising body, you shouldn’t have your husband or daughter doing the books.”


Nolan did not suggest McNeil and her daughter were engaging in fraudulent behavior, but “how would I know if I don’t have any financial reports?” she asked.


However, Fox said there was a “checks and balances” system in place with the auditors and other society employees to prevent impropriety.


Fox called the whole ordeal “degrading, dehumanizing and unnecessary” for McNeil.


“Her punishment is way beyond whatever offense they suspect she committed. And then to give her a gag order?” Fox asked. “It’s just bullying, really.”


Kevin Feuka, president of the zoo society, signed a severance agreement with McNeil that stipulates neither can speak of the “termination” or publicly “disparage” the other party. McNeil was paid 16 weeks’ worth of salary after being fired March 5, but she waived the rights to any future employment with the society.


Ever since the county took over management of the zoo from the city of Lansing in 2006, Feuka said the society ran strong under McNeil’s leadership. The county’s annual budget for the zoo is about $3 million, which comes through millage funds. That pays for salaries, park maintenance, utilities and some communication efforts, Feuka said.


In 2008, the society brought in roughly $750,000 in revenue from donations, admissions and other sales such as food and gifts. What doesn’t go into salaries and benefits goes back into the zoo’s education and outreach initiatives.


“We have increased our assets and profit, which goes back into the zoo — the balance sheet is done very well,” Feuka said. “The reasons as to why we mutually separated aren’t worth discussing.”


Another issue is whether Fueka has a conflict of interest.


Feuka is a principal at C2AE, an architectural and engineering firm with offices in Lansing that also contracts with the county. Its latest contract was for $49,000 to develop a master plan for the Ingham County Fairgrounds, awarded in July, according to county records. The firm also has done evaluations of county buildings in the past, Feuka said.


He denies any bias given to his firm as a result of the society board’s actions.


“C2AE has 100 clients. It would be stupid of me to give bias to Ingham County that would contrast with my working relationship,” he said.


In an interview, Bahar-Cook and Nolan said in a letter to Feuka in February that they wanted details on the society’s fund-raising and suggested there was impropriety going on between McNeil and her daughter.


Bahar-Cook referred to McNeil as a “road block” for getting the financial information.
“Because we weren’t getting information about financials, that made me
personally uncomfortable,” she said. “I’m not suggesting impropriety
going on, but what if there were? That was my interpretation.”


Tom
McNeil said his wife did not believe she had the authority to turn over
such information without first consulting the society board.


There was also suspicion that the county wanted more control over the society's financials. In a letter to the society board responding to the commissioners' letter, Diane McNeil wrote "... I have felt the past year that they would like to disband us and take over."


Meanwhile, the society is under new leadership.

Sherrie Graham started
on Aug. 16 as the society’s new director. The society only announced her
appointment last week, however. The press release made no reference to
McNeil, whose departure was never announced. Feuka said McNeil’s end of
employment was not made public because the “decision to separate was
internal.”

Graham
said she was made aware of the controversy surrounding her predecessor
after the interview process. However, she said she has not been
approached about handing over financial information of the society. If
she was, “We have full disclosure to the fullest extent that we need
it,” Graham said.


She
also denies seeing any pressure from the two commissioners as far as
threatening to dissolve or investigating financials of the society.


McNeil
made about $50,000 per year as the society director. Graham would not
disclose any information about her own salary. She said she did take a
“significant pay cut” from her last job by moving back to Michigan.

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