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BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight speaks before the BREC Commission in favor of relocating the Baton Rouge Zoo on Thursday, May 25, 2017.

Despite a bruising battle in her failed attempt to move the Baton Rouge Zoo and a previous declaration that it had to relocate or it would die, BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight still enjoys the support of her governing board and expects to spend the next year master planning a renovation of the facility.

The commissioners who oversee parks and recreation in Baton Rouge made their support for McKnight clear in an unusual public announcement Wednesday — one that comes as some public officials and community activists are pushing for her resignation. While board members rallied behind the embattled superintendent, McKnight, zoo Director Phil Frost and other BREC staffers handed out timelines for a lengthy new process to redesign and renovate the zoo.

Amid the campaign to move the zoo, leaked audio recordings surfaced of McKnight's meetings with employees, while emails showed her saying she would not attend further public meetings about the zoo because of past "public whippings." She was a frequent target of barbed criticism at such meetings by opponents of the zoo’s relocation who accused her of mismanagement.

A surge of backlash over the proposal from both north and south Baton Rouge residents led BREC’s board to keep the zoo at Greenwood Park. Although it's rare for BREC's board to reject a staff recommendation, members emphasized on Wednesday that McKnight still has their support.

“While we did not accept the staff recommendation, we do not question their commitment to this organization or to this community,” said Lloyd Benson, chairman of the BREC board of commissioners. He referenced a request from the Keep the Zoo at Greenwood Park group of activists that an external group investigate the agency, saying BREC would not invite an outside investigation “as there is simply no need to do so.”

A few days after the vote to keep the zoo at its current location, BREC announced that the zoo had lost its longtime accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that the agency's leaders had frequently boasted.

State Rep. Barbara West Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge, also has recently filed a resolution in the Louisiana Legislature that that asks the Louisiana legislative auditor to investigate BREC. The resolution, House Resolution 59, questions how the zoo has fallen into disrepair given the millions of dollars BREC receives annually from taxpayers. Carpenter also filed another bill that would require the zoo to remain at Greenwood Park, while Democratic state Sen. Regina Barrow has filed a bill that would change the makeup of the BREC board.

Carpenter, Barrow, Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks and others have questioned whether the agency has lost its way with the public.

Benson disputed that notion Wednesday.

“For every negative I’ve heard regarding superintendent McKnight and or Mr. Frost, I’ve heard three positives,” Benson said, adding that they have “the confidence and support of the public.”

McKnight, Frost and their staff expect to issue a request for proposals within the next three months for consultants to help design a renovated zoo. Once consultants are chosen, they will spend the next six to nine months coming up with a master plan for the zoo.

After that, BREC said fundraising and construction for the zoo renovations are to be determined.

The Keep the Zoo at Greenwood Park group also recently announced the creation of a committee to come up with improvements for the zoo. BREC officials said then that they were open to public input but that they wanted to have their own process to master plan the zoo with experts.

Banks emailed Benson about the issue after the news conference Wednesday. Benson responded that the commission is “entrusting this process to BREC leadership” and that they would invite community input “at the designated time.”

During the news conference, BREC Commissioner Mike Walker challenged the zoo’s critics to cough up money to help pay for the type of re-imagined zoo many have requested. He said he would be the first, handing McKnight a $10 bill.


Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.​