Political zoology 101

Oct 30, 2002 at 12:00 am

News Hits is not big on locking up animals and putting them on display for the public’s amusement. Unless, of course, the creatures in question happen to be corporate predators a la Enron’s Ken Lay. In that case, we say jailcams all around.

But we are big on giving taxpayers a voice in where their money goes, and having politicians actually heed the input. Which is why we’ll be watching closely next week when Detroit voters will be asked via Proposal Z if they want the city to continue to manage, fund and keep open the Belle Isle Zoo. With an annual budget of $1.4 million, the zoo has traditionally been open six months a year. But this spring, with the city facing a $75 million deficit, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick decided to keep the facility shuttered, even though the City Council appropriated a $700,000 Band-Aid to provide bare-bones funding for the facility. Kilpatrick ignored the council, saying the facility’s not profitable.

“It’s not a business. It’s a public service,” Councilman Ken Cockrel says of the zoo. He concedes that the facility is rundown and needs a long-term funding plan that provides for maintenance. But closing the place would be unfair to Detroit residents who lack transportation to the other city-owned zoo in Royal Oak, says Cockrel. He and other council members also say the Belle Isle Zoo might actually turn a profit if the city marketed it as it does the Detroit Zoo.

Ron Kagan, director of both the Detroit and Belle Isle zoos, referred questions to the mayor. Neither the Kwamster nor anyone from his office returned News Hits’ phone calls.

A Detroit-based nonprofit, People Reinvesting in Detroit Enterprises (PRIDE), is critical of the zoo closure plan. The group shares the same concerns as the council and lobbied members in August to put Proposal Z on the ballot.

The council unanimously passed a resolution to place an advisory question on the Nov. 5 ballot regarding the zoo. If it passes, PRIDE vice president Kenneth Reed says that it will send a message to the administration that the public wants the zoo open.

Note, however, the word advisory. The mayor is under no obligation to listen to voters in this case. But if he doesn’t, the council will likely sue the administration to try and keep the zoo open, says Cockrel.

From where we sit, that kind of monkey suit is the last thing the financially strapped city needs to spend its money on. Our advice: Heed the call of the people, whatever it may be.

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