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Top Choice as L.A. Zoo Director Bows Out

August 23, 1991|JANE FRITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten months after Warren Thomas announced his resignation as the head of the Los Angeles Zoo, the troubled city-owned facility is still without a director and the leading candidate for the job has bowed out, saying housing costs are too high and the pay is too low.

City officials said Thursday they will renew the search for a director and will push the City Council to raise the salary. But the officials rejected proposals to offer housing assistance that might lure a candidate to the Los Angeles area.

"It's extremely expensive to live on the West Coast," said Terry Maple, director of the Atlanta Zoo, who until last week was the leading candidate to replace Thomas.

"There's a huge real estate gap," Maple said in a telephone interview. "Good housing there as compared to here (in Atlanta) is twice as expensive."

The current salary limit for the zoo director's job is $94,356, but an executive salary committee voted last week to recommend raising the limit to $116,000, sources said.

But even the higher salary, which must still be approved by the City Council, was not enough to lure Maple, who has a large house on several acres in Atlanta.

Maple, 44, is credited with turning around the Atlanta Zoo in the last seven years, transforming it from one of the worst facilities in the country to an institution widely praised among zoo professionals.

His experience with a troubled institution put him at the top of a list of possible candidates compiled by the city's Personnel Department, and he emerged as the leading candidate after interviews ended last month.

Maple was the choice of city officials and the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., the private organization that helps run the zoo. This made him even more desirable, sources said. Relations between city officials and the zoo association were strained under Thomas' leadership and have remained uncomfortable since he left.

The zoo association's desire to get a "world-class" zoo director and Maple's emergence as a candidate prompted organization officials to suggest a range of perks to attract him, including additional salary, housing allowance or even a house to be constructed in Griffith Park.

The benefits would have been funded by the zoo association, which raises money largely through donations. Other major zoos around the country offer salaries well above $125,000 in addition to perks such as houses and cars, city officials said.

"I am disappointed that the city chooses to ignore our offers of help," Camron Cooper, chairman of the zoo association board, said Thursday. "The zoo has been without a director for a long time and it is suffering."

City Personnel Director John J. Driscoll acknowledged on Thursday that the high cost of living in Los Angeles makes it difficult to recruit managers from other cites, but he said the city is not ready to set a precedent by offering an extraordinary benefit for a zoo director or any other employee.

"We don't do that," said Councilwoman Joy Picus, who chairs the council committee that oversees personnel matters. "Why would we give a zoo director a house when we don't give one to general managers? Nobody would want this to happen."

The Times reported last year that the Griffith Park facility had been cited repeatedly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture over a three-year period for inadequate food storage, sanitation and drainage problems, pest and rodent contamination, inadequate housing, run-down animal barns and other alleged violations of federal regulations. Thomas resigned after those reports and on the day the city auditor issued a report concluding that Thomas had violated several provisions of the City Charter in his handling of a special zoo fund.

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