Chattanooga Zoo officials met Thursday with two zoo management consultants but closed a later workshop to the press.
The consulting firm Schultz & Williams is being paid $25,000 by Friends of the Zoo, which contracts with the city to manage the zoo. The contract stipulates that Friends of the Zoo must abide by Tennessee open meetings and open records laws.
When asked by the Chattanooga Times Free Press to cite the state law under which zoo officials could close the workshop to the press, Friends Chairman Gary Chazen said, "I'm not an attorney. I can't tell you what law allows it."
Frank Gibson, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the board should not have closed the workshop to the press or public.
"There is not an exemption in the law for a workshop," he said. "Public bodies across the state have workshops in public view all the time. And the public has a right to hear the discussions."
Earlier this month, Chazen and board members Mickey Myers and Robin Derryberry announced the consultant study. During separate meetings, they pledged openness to the Times Free Press and to the Chattanooga City Council's Legal and Legislative Committee.
"We know there are some issues there [at the zoo], and obviously we're going to try to get to the bottom of it," Chazen said at the time.
Seven animals died over a month's time over the holiday period, including the zoo's star, Hank the chimpanzee.
When announcing the consultant study, Chazen said Schultz & Williams' mission is to examine everything from the zoo's management team to its policies.
"Everything is on the table," Chazen said.
During the board's agenda meeting Thursday, consultant David Walsh said he and consultant Catherine Wagner are having their second set of meetings with local people who don't work at the zoo but might visit, such as officials with the Creative Discovery Museum.
"We anticipate one more visit [to Chattanooga after this one] and we should wrap up our study in late April or early May," Walsh said.
After the meeting was adjourned, the board and consultants went to see the 6-week-old snow leopard cub that Chazen and Zoo Director Darde Long said has helped the zoo make national news.
Afterward, the same board members and consultants came back to the board table for the closed workshop.
Larry Zehnder, the director of Chattanooga's Parks and Recreation Department who signed the contract with the Friends, said Thursday that he will consult with the city attorney to see if the board's closed workshop violated terms of the contract.
"We pay them to operate the zoo," he said.