Zoo Tycoon

How Audubon Nature Institute's Ron Forman Has Shaped New Orleans

Finding someone who is willing to speak honestly and on the record about Ron Forman and the Audubon Institute isn’t the easiest task; when journalists start sniffing around the topic, it immediately raises eyebrows. As an Audubon commissioner—who asked to remain anonymous—said wryly, “Nobody writes puff pieces about Ron.” Of course, that’s not strictly true. During his long tenure as a New Orleans power broker, Ron Forman has received “Man of the Year” awards from multiple organizations, including Gambit (New Orleanian of the Year, 1995) and New Orleans Magazine (Man of the Decade, 1990), and it’s safe to say that the attendant profiles weren’t particularly hard-hitting. But the plethora of extant Forman puff pieces notwithstanding, what the commissioner is getting at is the shadow side of his St. Charles Avenue reputation, which just about anybody who doesn’t attend his cocktail parties will readily acknowledge.

If you’ve never heard the name before, you might recognize him by sight as the man who stood behind Irvin Mayfield when the news broke that Mayfield had siphoned over $1 million from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation.

When WWL-TV’s David Hammer first uncovered the criminal mismanagement of public funds in 2015, Forman was the chairman of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and he claimed ignorance of any wrongdoing. “The documents say the money was spent properly,” he told Hammer, though Hammer stated elsewhere in that report that it would be hard to determine the extent of the mismanagement since “both the library charity and the Jazz Orchestra scrubbed their books.”

The whole time Mayfield was misdirecting public funds, he and Forman were closely tied. While Ron Forman sat on NOJO’s board, his son, Dan Forman, sat on the board of the Library Foundation. The board hopping went both ways; Mayfield’s business partner and co-defendant, Ronald Markham, was sitting on the board of Forman’s Audubon Nature Institute the year David Hammer broke the NOJO story. Though Mayfield and Markham now face an 18 month jail sentence, neither of the Formans have been implicated—a fact that was not lost on Mayfield’s defense attorney, Claude Kelly. As Kelly was paraphrased by NOLA.com, “he’s been punished in ways that the city’s White, well-connected power brokers on the board of the Jazz Orchestra were not.”

Forman first entered City government roughly 50 years ago as an analyst in Mayor Moon Landrieu’s administration. He would later tell the media he was lured out of the Tulane MBA program by Landrieu’s call for young people to enter public service. By 1973, he had become deputy director of Audubon Park and Zoo; and by 1977, he was in charge of the two institutions. While his exact title has evolved over the years, throughout he’s maintained control of an expanding Audubon empire.

By essentially all accounts, including his own, he took over a zoo in a sorry state. The top vet at the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in 1972 that Audubon was “probably the worst” of the country’s 370 major zoos, and zoologist Sue Pressman of the Humane Society of the United States said that same year that the zoo was violating federal rules, was inadequately staffed, and kept animals in undersized enclosures. “I guess the society’s file on this zoo must weigh at least 10 pounds, mostly complaints from our members and other local people,” she told the Times-Picayune. It’s long been claimed by Forman and others in New Orleans and national media that The New York Times even at one point described the zoo as an “animal ghetto,” though that phrase doesn’t appear in the paper’s comprehensive searchable archives. (The Times didn’t respond to an inquiry about whether it ever used the phrase.)

Forman was soon being lauded for presiding over an expansion and modernization of the facility, guided in part by outside consultants from a company called Zooplan, and a multimillion-dollar fundraising operation. “Amazing is a word often used to describe the progress at Audubon Park and Zoological Gardens,” gushed a Times-Picayune reporter in 1982. “And Ron Forman.” The Audubon chief was also already drawing attention for his $72,500 annual salary, more than that of any other City official, including Mayor “Dutch” Morial. Questions about his compensation have dogged Forman throughout his decades running Audubon facilities, though supporters have long argued his ability to raise funds and execute on projects justifies his pay.

“Personally, we believe Mr. Forman should be cloned, and his several selves turned loose on the problems of the city,” a 1988 WWL-TV editorial argued, amid questions about his pay.

At the time of the 1982 profile, Audubon Park was caught in a political tug of war between City and state governments, with each claiming control over the Audubon Commission, which oversees the park. The Louisiana Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the City. Forman, who gained a reputation for showing up at City budget meetings with a parrot on his shoulder, avoided taking a side in the media, portraying himself as focused on managing and developing the zoo and its animal attractions. “That’s how I get my kicks,” he told the Times-Picayune, “seeing something built out of the ground.”

The City would in a few years turn day-to-day operations of the zoo over to an organization originally known as the Friends of the Zoo, which had expanded during Forman’s tenure from a small volunteer group to a sizable nonprofit that raised more than half of the zoo’s revenues through fund drives and concessions, handled the zoo’s marketing, and already employed most of the people working at the facility. In 1988, the City Council and Audubon Commission approved putting the Friends group, which had been renamed the Audubon Institute, in charge of zoo operations. It had already been granted similar authority over the then-planned Audubon Aquarium of the Americas downtown. Existing City employees were to be transferred to the Institute, though they could still elect to work under Civil Service rules; but new employees wouldn’t have such an option. Forman at that point was executive director of both the Audubon Commission and the Institute, the Times-Picayune reported.

When the City gave up operational control to the Audubon Institute, it was the first in a wave of privatizations of City services. To many, the disgraceful management of the Zoo was the perfect symbol of a criminally incompetent local government, and Forman’s apparent success seemed to validate the narrative that the private sector could manage public assets more efficiently. As the commissioner we spoke to puts it, “New Orleans doesn’t have a reputation for excellent public management. Audubon manages the parks better—a private agency has the advantages of speed and flexibility.”

From the post-Katrina replacement of traditional public schools with charter schools, to periodic calls to privatize the Sewerage & Water Board, to the Regional Transit Authority’s since-terminated longtime relationship with a private contractor, the City ceding operational power to the private sector has had profound consequences for public participation. Privatization can result in the public being so far removed from the back rooms where the decision making takes place that by the time they learn of a plan it is usually too late to do anything about it, and the agencies that actually answer to the public have no power to stop it. It’s for this reason that holding the City accountable for sanitation workers getting paid poverty wages is so difficult; the city’s three garbage collection contractors pay them—not the City. Few of these agencies know how to leverage this power as well as the Audubon Institute; as Robert McClendon wrote for NOLA.com, ”dozens of obscure boards and commissions orbit New Orleans as part of the city’s oft-derided ‘satellite government,’ but the Audubon organization dwarfs them all.”

If Forman had an ethos, one of its main tenets might be that any public property which does not make money is a waste of resources; it seems that in his eyes public land is little more than a development waiting to happen. This ethos was on full display during his high profile attempt to privatize the Fly, one of the city’s most popular greenspaces. In 2015, the Audubon Commission voted on a contract that would have given two soccer clubs the right to build a private stadium along the waterfront. The contract included a clause to build a concession stand that would have significantly benefited Jeffrey Goldring, a member of the Audubon Nature Institute’s board whose beverage empire would have stocked the stand. Goldring donated generously to the Audubon Institute, and Forman defended himself to NOLA.com saying, “rightly or wrongly,” [the Audubon Institute] wanted to show its thanks for Goldring’s generosity by patronizing the family’s businesses.”

Though the Commission was technically the entity entering into the contract, the Institute negotiated the deal. While the organizations are not interchangeable, you could be forgiven for thinking they were. If there is anywhere their interests diverge, it doesn’t show; both organizations are even represented by the same law firm. “There is absolutely no conflict, in my mind, to be using counsel that represents both parties,” J. Kelly Duncan, president of the Audubon Commission, told NOLA.com. “If we were in an adverse relationship with Audubon Nature Institute that would be a problem.”

It is commonly understood that the relationship between the Audubon Nature Institute and the Audubon Commission is anything but adverse; multiple sources have described the Audubon Commission as the Institute’s “rubber stamp committee.” In a report issued last year, the Office of the Inspector General questioned whether the relationship between the Commission and Institute violated the law and the contract between the two entities. According to the report, which identified almost half a million dollars of public funds spent without “public purpose,” the two entities were so closely entwined that the only signatories on Commission bank accounts were employees of the Institute, not the Commission. The report concluded that the Commission did not “maintain and administer its funds as required by the Home Rule Charter and the Contract” and that the “the Commission did not approve the Institute’s annual operating budget as required by the Contract.”

But while the two are in practice closely intertwined, in theory, the Commission is supposed to serve as an official oversight committee, meaning the Institute should hear the word “no” at least occasionally. In fact, given that they are the official stewards of public funds—including $10 million a year that comes directly from taxpayers—shouldn’t that make the Audubon Commission Ron Forman’s boss? “Client might be a better word than boss,” says the commissioner we spoke to. “On paper, the Commission has almost total power. At the end of the contract the Commission could give it to someone else. Now I don’t want to say never, but let’s just say that scenario would be extremely unlikely. In reality the two operate pretty much hand in glove.”

While the Institute’s hand was operating the Commission’s glove to turn the Fly into an Institute money-maker, Uptown New Orleanians from all walks of life were gathering daily in its open spaces. For Adrienne Petrosini, a prominent advocate with Save the Fly (alongside founders Bill Ives and Michael Nius)1this has been updated from the print version, which refers to Petrosini as “founder” of Save the Fly and does not include Ives and Nius, there’s nowhere she feels more connected to the city than the Fly. “One day I was sitting on the Fly with a friend drinking wine,” she remembers, “and I thought I’m never gonna be able to live in one of those fancy condos, but I can always come here. Kids are playing, African American families are celebrating, lovers are walking by the river—it’s this diverse microcosm of New Orleans. People are just enjoying the river and being restored by it. It’s peaceful.” The memory is particularly striking to her because soon afterwards the Audubon Institute revealed its plan to privatize the greenspace. “There was no public conversation, nothing,” she says, still in disbelief five years later.

Horrified, she and other community members rallied to stop the project. They organized and held well-attended meetings on the Fly. When then-council member LaToya Cantrell held a meeting for public comment about the project at City Hall in 2016, so many people wanted to speak on behalf of the Fly that the meeting lasted four hours. “Every type of person you can imagine spoke of their experiences. There were psychologists from Children’s Hospital who walked along the Fly to decompress, families, teachers, everybody had a story about how connected they were to the place,” says Petrosini. “The people from Audubon were there, and Forman, at the end of the meeting, went up to the mayor and said—though I can’t quote him exactly—‘this was fine and good, but you know it’s our decision.’ And that’s exactly the way it works.”

On the road to such unilateral decision-making power, Forman has met with his share of critics. In 1988, then-Councilmember Joseph I. Giarrusso (grandfather of current council member Joseph III), in a rare example of someone within the political elite willing to speak out publicly against Forman, shared some of his reservations about his leadership in a letter to the Times-Picayune. “The zoo director [Forman] and his assistant [Dale Stastny] — by fiat of the Audubon Park Commission — have been awarded fringe benefits so far in excess of any other public employee as to be absurd.” Giarrusso voted against handing Audubon operations to the Institute, calling it a “power grab.” And in the ’90s, he would repeatedly call upon the Audubon Commission to share some of its admissions and property tax revenue with City government, but was generally rebuffed and told that legal advisors said the funds couldn’t be so easily transferred, according to City archival records. In 1992, Forman wrote to Giarrusso, granting him and his family honorary memberships to the zoo and aquarium. It appears the membership cards were never detached from the accompanying letter.

Giarrusso had also frequently called Forman’s exorbitant salary into question, as would others in the decades since he’s left office. As of 2019, Forman was receiving more than $563,000 from the Audubon Nature Institute, plus more than $182,000 in “other compensation from the organization and related organizations,” according to a federal filing. A report from the 2020 New Orleans Office of the Inspector General looked at Forman’s pay compared to other cultural institutions around the country and found that “some of the executive compensation could be gratuitous.”

But his most vocal critics tend to come from outside Forman’s immediate spheres of influence,  chief among them the woman who can only be described as Forman’s nemesis. If Save Audubon Park founder Debra Howell had been a journalist, she would be to Ron Forman what David Hammer has been to Irvin Mayfield. Ever since 20012this has been updated from the print version, which stated the year 2003, when the Audubon Institute unilaterally bulldozed into Audubon Park to build an executive golf course, Howell has dogged Forman’s heels by keeping an eye on his developments and sorting out fact from fiction in the Institute’s financials. Through all the encroachments, land appropriations, and blatant disregard for the public’s right to participate in deciding the fate of public land, Howell’s website has been there to arm people with the information they need to protect public space. Howell was there when Petrosini needed resources to fight Forman for the fly; and when ANTIGRAVITY came to her with questions, she was ready with a flash drive full of documents. How did one woman come to learn so much about the dealings of one man? “It all started with the golf course,” she says, “and my naive belief that when wrongs were pointed out to people in power they would listen and make changes.”

For most of its history, Audubon had maintained the golf course on a lawn originally designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted. “The historic golf course was lovely, a huge expanse of meadow as Olmstead intended,” says Howell. “The course was shared comfortably by golf lovers and park lovers. No security ever shooed you off.” But in 2003 the Audubon Institute began carrying out a plan to replace the original golf course with the executive style of golf course, with its homogenous array of hills and false lagoons. According to Howell, public approval was not factored into the Institute’s plans: “most people didn’t find out what was going on until they put up the fence.” When concerned park-lovers started meeting to find a way to change the plans, Howell says Audubon people crashed the first public meeting with stickers saying “A Better Safer Park.” She remains incredulous at the rationale. “As if safety had anything to do with it!”

But their outcry fell on deaf ears and the golf course was developed as planned. Before long, security started shooing park goers off the course. “They had no intention of changing their plans for the peons in the public,” says Howell. “That’s what really started my antipathy.”

For Forman and the Institute, the object of their political game appears to be extracting money from every bit of available land, unless, like the golf course, it is losing money but attracting the wealthy. After the 1984 World’s Fair, which laid the foundations for what is now the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, New Orleans power players seemed to agree on tourism as the city’s new main economic engine. Forman touted his work with the Audubon Institute as a major driver within the tourism economy. As he’s said, “family tourism has become huge… Here, we own the daytime visitor.” With his focus on tourist dollars, Forman appears to see public assets as something to be sold to outsiders. If public greenspace is lost, if the basic maintenance of historic oak trees and park benches is neglected, the people who suffer are those who Forman appears to have simply removed from his calculus.

When the downtown Aquarium was built, Forman similarly overcame opposition from French Quarter residents and preservationists who sought to block the project, saying at the time they hoped to turn the debate into the “Third Battle of New Orleans”—the Second Battle being the successful 1960s fight against a proposed riverfront expressway alongside the Quarter. The plans for the aquarium and what would become Woldenberg Riverfront Park were approved by voters citywide through a 1986 approval of a special property tax and by the City Council in 1987.

Ultimately, usually powerful groups including Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents, & Associates (VCPORA), who took the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court (which declined to hear the matter), proved no match for Forman and his allies. A National Park Service official reportedly also dropped his opposition after aquarium advocates successfully lobbied his bosses at the Department of the Interior. In the media, politicians had already begun to make jokes about Forman’s tenacity.

“He gets what he wants from you and you understand he’s doing that and you don’t mind,” former Council member Bryan Wagner, identified as a friend of Forman, told the Times-Picayune in 1986.

And Forman at that point made no secret of his ambitions to shape the future of the downtown waterfront, which since at least the time of the 1984 World’s Fair has gradually transitioned from part of the city’s working port to tourist-focused parks and attractions. “I’ll be down at Jax Brewery for the annual celebration,” he told the Times-Picayune in a 1989 roundup of local bigwigs’ New Year’s Eve plans. “While I’m sipping my champagne, I’ll be looking at the riverfront and envisioning what it will look like over the next 10 years.”

Forman, who’s been hailed for his fundraising ability for decades, quickly secured funding to build the aquarium, which was paid for by about $15 million in private donations and $25 million from bonds backed by the tax. Big donors included oil companies Chevron, Amoco, and Shell, who contributed a total $1.6 million to the aquarium, which features an exhibit highlighting marine life around a simulated Gulf of Mexico oil rig. (Chevron employees currently sit on both the Audubon Commission and the board of the Institute).

The since-closed Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, which was located in the historic U.S. Custom House on Canal Street, also faced opposition from Quarter residents concerned about traffic and overtourism, but to no avail: After various delays, the facility opened to the public in 2008. It closed last year during a COVID-19-related cash crunch.

By the early 1990s, local reporters had begun describing Forman as essentially a local power broker. Forman unsuccessfully ran for mayor in the chaotic, post-Katrina election in 2006—launching his campaign from the Zoo’s Audubon Tea Room to the tune of The Meters’ “They All Ask’d for You”—and generally appears each year at Audubon’s annual Zoo-to-Do fundraising galas. But he’s been more of a behind-the-scenes dealmaker, winning votes and signatures from other people in power, not the general public. In describing his relationship with Hawaii resort developer Christopher Hemmeter, who was involved with the casino project that became Harrah’s, Times-Picayune reporter Tyler Bridges explained that Hemmeter needed to get to know the city’s elite.

“So he turned to Forman, president of the Audubon Institute, to gain entree to the city’s power brokers, traditionally cool to outsiders,” Bridges wrote in 1992. “Forman had a cocktail party for Hemmeter attended by 400 heavy-hitters at the Aquarium of the Americas, squired him to luncheons and meetings with important business and political leaders, and even accompanied him to the Big Easy Music awards ceremony.”

Conveniently, Forman’s apparent worldview is shared by the other hospitality industry elites who sit on the boards of the city’s wealthiest and most influential tourism organizations. The Convention Center, Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED), and New Orleans & Company (on whose board Forman now sits) steer the ship of the city’s tourism economy in return for over $100 million annually from taxpayers, including the many people who struggle to make ends meet while doing the menial labor of tourism. These organizations’ boards are filled with people who represent the private interests of international hotels, restaurant groups, and event companies, companies whose fortunes rise in accordance with their board presence. Wealth is extracted in the downtown tourism belt, and as in Audubon Park, public land is just territory waiting to be conquered.

In 2010, while chairman of the LSED (a behemoth in New Orleans tourism’s big three) Forman had a portion of a city street permanently closed to “enhance the game-day experience around the stadium,” according to NOLA.com, at what’s now known as Champions Square. At the time Forman said “the city has been very, very supportive… we are working together.” But in 2018 Mayor Cantrell sent a letter to the LSED demanding $3.6 million in back rent and $488,000 in yearly lease payments, because the organization had been financially benefiting from public property without compensating the city. It is impossible to know whether Forman disclosed to the city the organization’s intention to take the city block without paying for it while making the initial deal. As Howell puts it, “he’s one of those Teflon people.”

The story of this city block recalls the incident with the Fly, the Audubon golf course, and the Insectarium. A development plan is made without public input and executed quickly and quietly. Once the public resource has been taken away, the people have lost their bargaining chips, and collecting any kind of change or compensation requires more dogged effort than most politicians and working people are willing or able to spend. In time, the people forget that what was lost was ever theirs. “I don’t want to pretend that this is the best of all possible worlds,” says the Audubon commissioner we spoke to. “A lot of what’s in place has been there for quite a while. It doesn’t mean that it’s right, or that you can’t ever change, but it does make it harder.”

Change does, however, appear to be on the horizon. Since the public succeeded in stopping the Fly development, the Audubon empire has taken some hits. In 2014, Audubon’s measure to secure taxpayer dollars was soundly defeated at the polls, amid questions about how the money would be spent, Forman’s high compensation, and the unusually long, 50-year duration of the proposed tax. Then, in 2019, Audubon and other organizations successfully convinced voters to approve a new plan creating a 20-year property tax sending funds to Audubon, City Park, the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORD), and the City Department of Parks & Parkways. For the first time, Audubon would have to take a loss to benefit public agencies.

But these incremental changes may not be able to keep up with the pace of Audubon development. Just before Mayor Mitch Landrieu left office in 2017, the City signed a deal with the Port of New Orleans to trade the New Orleans Public Belt freight railroad for waterfront wharves at the ends of Governor Nicholls Street and Esplanade Avenue. The goal is to turn them into parkland bridging from Crescent Park in the Marigny and Bywater to Woldenberg Riverfront Park in the Quarter, with the new park under the Audubon aegis, though the timeline is so far unclear. (Lynes “Poco” Sloss, who is now chairman of the Audubon Institute board, was then president pro tempore of the Public Belt). Once again, Forman has come under suspicion from neighborhood groups, concerned about tourism or noisy events at the new park. While he’s said the site wouldn’t be developed as a “major performance area,” he’s cited the need to pay for the new park’s maintenance, implying some sort of revenue-producing development is inevitable.

“They’re determined to do what they want,” says Debra Howell. “They’ll fight you to the death in court, lie, and cheat to develop something that is ostensibly to make money, but it never does. I’ve never understood exactly how they gauge success, since it can’t be financial.” With Forman and the city’s power players reeling from the loss of tourism income throughout the pandemic, the people of New Orleans finally have a chance to redefine success for themselves. If we take advantage of the time gained from some of the city’s biggest development projects being temporarily put on hold, the public may finally be able to regain some of the power that was lost to the private sector.

“I really don’t understand how wealth and power lets you get away with so much,” says Howell. But for her part, there is nothing to fear in speaking truth to power. “I think the only way they can hurt people is if you want something from them. I don’t know what they can do to me, since I have no aspirations within their world. I don’t want anything from them except to do the right thing.”

illustrations by Kallie Tiffau

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