Judge hears argument over zoo shutdown

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 1, 2011 - 5:33 PM

Minnesota Zoo wants to open before the penguins exhibit debut.

The Minnesota Zoo is closed and debut of the penguins is in peril of postponement unless Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin rules this weekend in favor of funding, which would allow the Apple Valley facility to reopen.

Former Attorney General Mike Hatch argued for funding, saying the zoo operates with a mix of revenues similar to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, which have been funded through the shutdown. The zoo should be able to open using a state law that directs zoo gate revenue back to the facility, he said.

Because it has a standing appropriation, the zoo argues, it should be allowed to open.

"As far as I know, the governor's not king. They need to follow the law," Hatch said. "They cannot pick and choose standing appropriations; it's the law."

The zoo was closed Friday with a long-term shutdown carrying the potential of a delay in the debut of the summer's marquee event -- the opening of the Penguins of the African Coast exhibit July 9.

In a ruling earlier this week, the judge declared the 90 zookeepers to be essential and allowed them to keep working during the shutdown.

Former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, representing the governor, said the zoo isn't a core function and shouldn't be open. He said allowing the zoo to open would be to change the zoo's business model.

Zoo Director Lee Ehmke said 230 employees have been laid off. The private company running concessions has another 100 employees who aren't working. July 4th is traditionally one of the zoo's largest revenue weekends.

Hatch noted that 75 percent of the zoo's funding comes from admissions, concessions, concerts, rental fees and donations. The remainder comes from the state through legislative appropriation. Hatch said the zoo wants authority to tap the 75 percent, which he argued is a standing appropriation and thus exempt from the shutdown.

State Solicitor General Alan Gilbert argued for allowing the zoo to open, saying that fiscally speaking it wouldn't be onerous and could be done quickly.

The hearing made for odd allegiances. Hatch, a DFLer and a supporter of the governor's 2010 campaign, argued against Lillehaug, who represented the governor.

"You're not going to have a zoo today," Gearin told the lawyers after the hearing. She said she could rule on the zoo Saturday.

Rochelle Olson • 651-735-9749 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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