Former House Speaker recommends public-private partnership for National Zoo

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., told a congressional panel Wednesday that the Smithsonian Institution should turn management of the National Zoo over to a public-private partnership.

Gingrich's zoo proposal was one of 20 for improving the management of agencies and the civilian workforce that he recommended to the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization.

The National Zoo, located in Rock Creek Park in Washington, is famous for its giant pandas, one of which gave birth last week to a cub, drawing considerable international attention. A division of the Smithsonian, the zoo has been critically scrutinized after a string of animal deaths, triggering outside reviews.

The model proposed by Gingrich has been implemented in other zoos around the country, including the Atlanta-Fulton County Zoo, which has been a non-profit organization empowered by the city of Atlanta since 1984. For almost 100 years, the city funded and operated the zoo until it reached a "crisis point for various reasons," according to a zoo spokeswoman.

Currently, the Atlanta zoo is operated by a board of directors and has an operating agreement with the city's recreation authority.

Gingrich promoted the public-private partnership of the Atlanta Zoo and said that the model could be applied to the National Zoo and the 3,200-acre Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., saying that it would result in more creativity and flexibility in managing the research center and the 163-acre zoological park in the heart of the nation's capitol.

"[T]he National Zoo has suffered from the problems of a neglectful bureaucracy," Gingrich testified. "When something can't be privatized or outsourced, the next question should be whether or not there is a useful public-private partnership that might be used to accomplish the same goals with fewer taxpayer resources and more creativity, energy and flexibility."

The Smithsonian, which manages 16 museums and art galleries, received failing scores in all five categories of the Bush administration's management agenda in the latest ratings by the Office of Management and Budget. It was the only agency to fail in each category.

Gingrich also pointed to the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park, where a 2-cent property tax provides $3 million to $5 million of the zoo's annual budget of $150 million, as another example of a successful public-private partnership in running an animal habitat. The zoo is operated by the Zoological Society of San Diego, and the rest of its funding comes from donations, membership and admission fees.

Government Reform Committee spokesman Robert White said an official proposal for altering the management structure of the National Zoo is not being considered at this time, and Gingrich was asked to testify before the committee because of his "provocative" viewpoints and ability to look at things differently.

"Clearly, Chairman [Tom] Davis [R-Va.] has done a number of things that involve public-private partnerships," White said. "I don't know if it's a proposal that somebody's going to make or just an idea."

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said that a reorganization of the National Zoo in a public-private partnership would have to come from Congress.

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