If the Woodland Park Zoo won’t comply with state open meetings and records laws, the Seattle City Council should use the power of the purse and make it do so.

Share story

AN accepted rule of thumb in public relations is: When in crisis, be as open and transparent as possible.

Someone forgot to tell the Woodland Park Zoo.

The zoo, already under siege for its inhumane elephant exhibit, further eroded public trust this week when it denied access to a journalist seeking to cover a meeting of its board of directors. Instead, it let in activists demanding the zoo’s two elephants be moved to a sanctuary, rather than another zoo, as its board has decided.

“We’re a private organization. This is a private meeting,” the zoo’s chief operating officer told The Times’ Daniel Beekman.

The Woodland Park Zoo’s executive director since has retreated from that absurd position. But the initial decision — to operate behind closed doors, even as the public sought answers — is consistent with the zoo’s recent history.

Although the zoo sits on city-owned land, and the City of Seattle contributes about $7 million a year (at least a quarter of the zoo’s budget), the nonprofit organization insisted in court this summer that it didn’t have to comply with the state’s Public Records Act, which governs public entities. The zoo won the initial legal argument; the question is now on appeal.

But Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council, which cuts that big annual check to the zoo, should not wait for this issue to wind its way through the courts. Given their relationship, the city should use the power of the purse strings and require the zoo to comply with public-disclosure and open-meetings laws.

There is no obvious legal reason the city couldn’t amend its agreement and make such a mandate, said Rob Roy Smith, a Seattle attorney who represents elephant activists in the lawsuit seeking zoo records under the Public Records Act.

He notes that there are relatively few cases like his because nonprofit agencies typically bend to public pressure and voluntarily comply with sunshine laws. The zoo apparently didn’t get that memo, either.

If the Woodland Park Zoo is not willing to step into the sunlight and open its meetings and records, the City Council should leverage its generous financial support and make it do so.