Twinkles the Elephant and Transparency in Government

A nearly universal lack of trust in government stands as an understandable impediment to the upcoming T-SPLOST referendum. Yet, history shows how to deal with government malfeasance.

In discussions about the upcoming T-SPLOST vote, much has been said on the subject of government integrity or, more accurately, its conspicuous absence. History is replete with examples of the most appalling instances of ineptitude and malfeasance imaginable – all at the hands of government.

While the list is legion, the goal here, for those who are not simply content with criticism, is to end it – or at least to limit it as much as possible. This begs the question: does history give us an example of truly egregious mismanagement and corruption that was rectified in a means applicable in this situation, today?

It just so happens that, very recently, in fact, we here in Atlanta came face-to-face with the most heartless kind of cruelty that bureaucracy can dish out, and turned it completely around in stunning short order.

It all began with an elephant named Twinkles.

Many people who call metropolitan Atlanta home do not remember the Grant Park Zoo. Until the late 1980s, the Zoo was run by a menagerie of city employees within the Department of Parks and Recreation.

In those days the Zoo had managed to maintain the rustic quaintness of a bygone era, sort of like the chambers of a medieval surgeon. Still, the citizens had a genuine affection for the creatures wiling away the hours of their incarceration within tiled cells smaller than my freshman dormitory. Atlanta’s de facto mascot was a gorilla who was named after the city’s mayor and best known for watching soap operas all day (the gorilla, not the mayor).

Next in line of fame were two Asian elephants. Cocoa was the flamboyant showoff, but so vindictively jealous of her top billing that she had to be separated from her shy, arthritic counterpart, Twinkles, for the protection of the latter.

Like many a family dog, the timid, ailing Twinkles was eventually sent to a farm in the wilds of Alpharetta where she could “run and play and maybe we’ll all go out and see her one of these days”. Tragically, the scenario turned out to be a bit too much like that of the family dog.

In 1984, the body of an elephant was found in a shallow grave along a highway in North Carolina. Not surprisingly, the most casual sleuthing by authorities promptly found the guilty party: a third-rate travelling circus. What did come as a shock, however, was the excuse offered by the circus owner. He was quick to protest that he had been duped by the Atlanta Zoo into buying a sick performer who promptly died. Shock turned to horror when the postmortem proved that the perished pachyderm was actually the presumed to be happily retired Twinkles.

No one was a bit amused. People asked, “What kind of zoo does something like that!” We soon found out.

A reporter named Ron Taylor (who sadly died just last month) set about investigating the matter further and found that the city was running little more than a concentration camp for exotic animals.

At about this time, two Kodiak bears were shot outside of a roadside wildlife exhibit (of sorts) in North Carolina. This time the animals had not been sold by the Zoo, though. Instead, they had merely been “loaned” years before to the owner of the roadside menagerie by Zoo officials who had simply forgotten all about them. (At least the city made a few bucks off of poor Twinkles)

The investigation also found other examples of malfeasance. It seems that at one point, city workers, overzealous in their pothole filling duties, entombed the entire collection of hibernating prairie dogs in their burrows with concrete. A desperately ill tiger was strapped to the bed of a pickup truck and driven all the way to Auburn, Alabama where aghast veterinary doctors mercifully euthanized her on the spot. In a few weeks, the same truck pulled up with a similarly ill lion that had to be likewise dispatched by the now presumably exasperated vets.

Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, it was revealed that Zoo employees were supplementing their own diets with “surplus” animals from the children’s petting zoo.

Around the country editorial cartoons began to lampoon the city and this scandal. An apt example depicted the entrance to the Atlanta Zoo brandishing the iron letters that spelled: “Arbeit Macht Frei”. With pre-scandal attendance almost exclusively limited to public school field trips in which none of the attendees were permitted to refuse, even that became an activity worthy of the intervention of the Department of Family and Children Services.

The city government naturally blamed it all on a lack of funding and even had the temerity to propose a bond referendum to borrow it. In response to demands that some assurance be given regarding the use of these funds, the city demurred. Not surprisingly, indignant voters flatly refused to approve the referendum and began to openly discuss plans to feed city leaders to the more fearsome carnivores before closing the Zoo for good.

Desperate for a compromise, civic leaders reluctantly transferred ownership and care of the Zoo to the Zoological Society, and within but a few years Zoo Atlanta emerged from the shameful ashes of this affair, phoenix-like, as among the best in the world.

It is still difficult to fathom the breadth and scope of this transformation or its speed. Atlanta’s kaleidoscope of animal cruelty had become a showplace of zoological stewardship. The entire region cheered when Willie B. stepped into the sunshine and felt the earth under his feet for the first time in nearly 30 years. (He went on to father several children by different mothers in the years to come, leading some to suspect that he had been paying far more attention to all of those episodes of “Secret Storm” than anyone suspected.)

How was this amazing transformation possible? Certainly, there were many factors, but most of the credit can be summed up in a single word: transparency.

After all, the Zoological Society could have produced the same results as the city and its Department of Parks and Recreation. Granted, it may have required contracting the duties out to Hannibal Lecter or the Manson Family, but look around, the world is chock full of nincompoops and not all of them work for government. (“New Coke” came out at that time, too, if you recall.)

The simple fact that the Zoological Society had to follow accounting rules and disclose their records to the public gave their staff ample reason to keep to the straight and narrow. The fear of public reaction to the revelation of “employee compensation” that included line items like “Zoo animals to be eaten by employees”, “revenue” from “sick animals sold to circuses,” and losses due to “inadvertent burial in cement” was, in and of itself, enough reason to institute proper governance.

The provisions of the upcoming transportation referendum make it a crime to even comingle the money from the T-SPLOST with other funds. They cannot be used as grants for the Cowboy Poetry Society (which isn’t a joke, by the way), the Fund for Incumbents’ Bribes, or, indeed anything other than the stated projects. Then, each year, a complete accounting of the finances and activities pertaining to the stated projects must be made public and will be reviewed by a Citizens’ Review Panel whose annual report will also be made public.

P.J. O’Rourke sagely observed that money and power are to politicians what whiskey and car keys are to teenaged boys. And, like teenaged boys, politicians behave differently when they are being watched. We may not yet be able to force our own government to adhere to the same accounting rules to which the rest of us are legally bound, but under this plan, for these projects at least, they will not be able to hide their actions.

If transparency could turn around the Atlanta Zoo in the 1980s, it’s worth imposing on our government, today.

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Kelly Miears July 28, 2012 at 05:10 PM
Fantastic article!
Bruce July 28, 2012 at 06:22 PM
Nice story and I love animals but this doesn't hit a homerun for TSPLOST. I'm voting No on July 31. In Cobb we will not know what projects will be funded until the Alternative Analysis is complete... in 2013, one year after the TSPLOST vote! And don't forget, any project can be changed if it is found to be "not viable." Nice try, though.
Brian July 28, 2012 at 11:11 PM
Considering that Georgia is among the most underfunded transportation system in the country and the state doesn't pay for MARTA, and many of the suburbs have shiny new roads with many lanes, and realignments, you don't really have anything to complain about. I come from New England. Most of our money was spent there filling potholes. The town I lived in only had one road realignment in my lifetime. So stop complaining. Considering you pay almost nothing for your transportation system, imagine what you could have if you actually spent something!
Brian July 28, 2012 at 11:17 PM
Bus lines are never going to feed a heavy rail backbone. It needs a regional light rail network fed by buslines, feeding a N-S and E-W heavy rail backbone. Heavy rail is inappropriate for the suburbs. When you do a suburban to suburban trip, it should be on light rail. Busses are not comfortable and most suburbans won't use them. Replacing the long routes in dense areas with light rail, then the short hauls can be in more comfortable and efficient shuttles. I work downtown. I use MARTA sometimes when I go eat. I used MARTA when I took accounting classes at GA State to help me in my managerial job. Any time you use MARTA, you can see how full it is during normal hours, even though it is an outdated system (e.g. no express trains and express bypasses). Even then, people still use it. And it has brought a lot of growth to the N-S line.
Chris Long July 29, 2012 at 12:34 AM
I come from New York, so I know a think or 2 about pot holes, bad roads & traffic. Of course, none of the roads in New York or New England are at issue here. To quote the author from one of his other pro-TSPLOST posts, "...while I won’t go so far as to call your comment “stupid”, I will say that it misses the point brilliantly." You're upbringing in the land of "Benevolent Government That Can Do No Wrong", has clearly shaped your outlook on things, but that same region is famous (infamous, really) for the costliest, most poorly run & problematic transportation project in the history of the country. Considering this, I would think even you would easily recognize the need for a better plan & demonstrable proof that those administering the projects can actually do the job in a transparent, timely & cost-effective manner. We're all vested in ATL's transportation future, but we're all also vested in how our money is raised, managed & spent. This is a bad plan, & it will get voted down. Action on a bad plan, simply to avoid inaction is worse than no action. A better plan + demonstrable proof that it can be run properly = a transportation initiative that will easily get all the votes it needs to pass. It's a very simple equation. See you @ the polls on Tuesday. ;-)


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