Third Honolulu Zoo director in 4 years resigns

Third Honolulu Zoo director in 4 years resigns
Published: Dec. 30, 2013 at 10:47 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 31, 2013 at 2:50 AM HST
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WAIKIKI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu Zoo Director Jeff Mahon has resigned after less than six months on the job, the third zoo director to step down in four years.

On July 12, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced the hiring of Jeff Mahon's appointment as zoo director, a homecoming of sorts since Mahon earned his doctorate degree in zoology at UH Manoa.

"I'm very excited to be back here. It's an amazing facility and a lot of ideas. Obviously you want to get the lay of the land before you do too many changes," Mahon said at the time.

But on Friday, less than six months after taking the job, Mahon told the zoo staff he was resigning immediately, effective that day.  He told staff he was pursuing some job leads, which he did not specify, sources said.

Mahon sent a letter to city Enterprise Services Director Gerald Saito the day after Christmas, saying he was resigning for unspecified "personal reasons." Mahon was not available for comment.  Sources said he'd turned in his city cell phone.

The city said he's on leave until his last official day on January 11.  He's paid between $89,724 and $149,364 a year.  Since he's a civil service employee and not a political appointee, his salary range is public but not the precise amount.

Mahon is the third director to leave the Honolulu Zoo in the last four years. That concerns zoo goers, like Dana Blechinger of Wahiawa who took her grandson and his friend to the zoo Monday.

"That's sad.  And I wonder why.  So I hope they find someone that has the passion to go ahead and watch out for the animals," Blechinger said.

A city spokesman declined an on-camera interview on behalf of city officials who oversee the zoo and zoo officials themselves, saying the director's departure is a human resources issue that they cannot comment on."

But privately, zoo employees said Mahon was not a strong manager and had trouble making decisions and they weren't surprised by his departure after only a few months on the job.

He also alienated staff in his first few days by going undercover and asking zookeepers questions about zoo operations without telling him who he was, sources said.

Mahon was a curator at several aquariums before taking the Honolulu job, emerging from a field of 40 applicants, city officials said.  He most recently served as director of exhibits and animal husbandry at Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, a position he held for two and a half years before coming to Honolulu.

Zoo employees expressed concern that the zoo is once again looking for a director as it prepares for re-accreditation two years from now, and one important requirement is management continuity.

Zoo Assistant Director Baird Fleming, who served as acting director before Mahon was hired, is once again in charge while a search for a permanent director is under way.

Mahon's immediate predecessor, Manuel Mollinedo, cited personal reasons when he resigned March 1, 2013, as zoo director after nearly two and a half years on the job.  Before Mollinedo, Stephen Walker resigned as zoo director in February of 2010, after about one year in the post.

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