The very existence of St. Louis’ Zoo-Museum District could be at stake in a debate over its ethics code, according to a national expert on tax funding and cultural districts.
The Zoo-Museum District’s ethics code is coming under increased scrutiny after last week’s resignation of board member Pat Whitaker. At least two board members called for Whitaker to step down after she revealed that her design company won a contract with the St. Louis Science Center, one of five organizations funded by the district. Of the $70 million in tax dollars overseen by the ZMD every year, $10 million has gone to the Science Center in recent years.
The ZMD’s ethics policy only requires board members to disclose potential conflicts of interest. But such arrangements should be strictly prohibited, according to Michael Rushton of Indiana University, who studies funding organizations like the ZMD across the country and is familiar with the district's operations.
“They are making decisions about organizations that are looking to contract with private firms for construction, expansion and various other services," Rushton said. "So you have to have a policy that the board cannot have financial interest in any of those companies.”
Rushton told St. Louis Public Radio that a strong ethics code can bolster public confidence. But a weak one – which is how he describes the ZMD’s – can contribute to a loss of public support, especially when the specter of conflict-of-interest issues surrounds the organization.
“Public suspicion can lead to the downfall of funding organizations if people lose confidence in whether these funds are actually being spent in the public interest,” Rushton said. “As people start to question how monies are being spent, they become less and less likely to support such funds, to point where they might accidently disappear entirely.”
ZMD Will Review Code But May Not Change It
A January report by St. Louis Alderman Joe Roddy, which criticized the ZMD’s governance, clearly states that its ethics code “needs to be updated.”
Whitaker’s resignation has heightened the need to review – but not necessarily revise – the ethics policy, according to ZMD board member Tom Campbell.
“It’s a high priority,” Campbell told St. Louis Public Radio.
The ZMD board has scheduled a Wednesday evening meeting to discuss both the Roddy report and the ethics code. Campbell is among those who are not committed to actually changing the ethics policy. He’s concerned that an overly stringent code could create problems.
“You need to be careful that it doesn’t become so restrictive that you’re laying a trap for people who are on the board who are going to inadvertently violate it,” Campbell said.
Campbell said that potential conflict-of-interest situations should be considered on a “case-by-case basis." But when asked to suggest language for a strong ethics code, he spoke of limiting arrangements that would result in financial gain for board members.
“In the case of the ZMD, it might be a restriction on any individual or their company having a direct contractual relationship with any of the five cultural institutions,” he said. Campbell agreed that immediate family members should also be included.
Would such a provision have covered the Whitaker situation? “Yes,” Campbell said.
He said that last week’s resignation is also a reminder that board members need to keep in close touch with one another.
“We need to be aware of perceptions and be sure misperceptions aren’t created by lack of communication among ourselves and with the public,” Campbell said.
Dooley Won’t Change Vetting Process
Rushton favors erring on the side of “too strict” in an ethics code for organizations funding cultural institutions. He said the time to consider whether a potential board appointee might be particularly vulnerable to situations that are conflicts or appear to be conflicts is before they’re in a decision-making role.
“If they have a tie to a business that could potentially work with an [funded] organization, they ought to think about that potentiality before looking to serve on that board,” Rushton said.
It’s not enough for a board member to acknowledge a situation in which he or she would profit from a business relationship with a funded institution, and refrain from voting on matters related to that organization, Rushton said.
“It becomes very difficult to separate, to say, ‘Well, I won’t involve myself in decisions of this one organization but I will for all the others.'" Rushton said. "You can’t do this because there is a limited pot of funds and every funding decision affects every other funding decision.”
As ZMD executive director Patrick Dougherty told the St. Louis Beacon several months ago, the Art Museum, Zoo and Science Center's subdistrict commissions “are the board of directors. They run it and are responsible for day to day operations.” The overall district, however, does have direct influence over the amount of money the subdistricts have to work with.
Whitaker was appointed by St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, who would only say he will “move forward in a timely manner” to replace her.
Last week, Dooley said he did look for potential conflicts before appointing Whitaker, through the usual process of asking her to fill out standard forms and asking questions based on her responses. He said he’ll stick with the same procedure when investigating the next candidate.
“It depends on what the person has put down [on the form] and what they tell me, but we do ask appropriate questions,” Dooley said.
Jason Rosenbaum contributed to this article.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL