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Aldermen question new agreement to run History Museum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Both sides in an aldermanic hearing on the Missouri History Museum Wednesday agreed that issues such as a questionable land deal and compensation for departed president Robert Archibald were mistakes that had shaken public confidence in the institution.

But they parted ways on the issue of whether recent changes in governance go far enough to restore taxpayers’ faith in the museum and to guard against such problems occurring in the future.

Alderman Joe Roddy called the City Hall hearing in the wake of prolonged publicity over land on Delmar purchased in 2006 without an appraisal for a community center that was never built, as well as the salary and other money paid to Archibald, who resigned from the museum late last year.

Starting out by calling the governance of the museum “a convoluted situation,” Roddy, who heads the board’s parks and environment committee, said he wanted to get the issues that have dogged the museum in recent months out of the media so it could return to its main purpose.

“Our goal is to bolster a sense of confidence that if there was something wrong, people will be held accountable,” Roddy said, “and if there wasn’t anything done wrong, we could move forward.

“I think everybody involved is acting with good intentions and for all the right reasons, yet we have this huge disconnect over decisions that have been made.”

He added: “I think everyone agrees that right now, there is a PR problem.”

Bonus or consulting contract?

Over three and a half hours, committee members questioned commissioners fron the city on the Zoo-Museum District board and the history museum subdistrict board. John Roberts, who heads the museum’s private board of trustees, also was questioned, sometimes sharply.

For example, one of the slides that Roddy screened to review the various layers of governance at the museum and the history of recent changes listed the “$270,000 bonus” awarded to Archibald on Dec. 21 of last year, the day after his resignation was announced.

Roberts was quick to take issue with that characterization.

“I think it’s erroneous to describe the $270,000 as a bonus,” he said. “It’s a consulting agreement.”

Roddy quickly agreed, responding:

“That’s a loaded word. I apologize…. The point here is the timing and the dollar amount that concern me. When I read that in the newspaper, I was very upset.”

Pressed for more information on the deal, Roberts explained that he had just taken over as head of the board of trustees little more than a week before Archibald announced his departure.

“I was in a quandary,” Roberts said. “We have all this controversy going on. The man who has led the museum for 24-plus years is walking out at the end of the year, and I have no real knowledge about running the history museum.”

An equally urgent issue, he added, was the ongoing fund-raising campaign, an area where Archibald had shown his skill at wooing and retaining donors.

So, he said, the decision was made to pay Archibald $270,000 for six months, with a large part of his duties being fund raising.

“I felt that it was necessary to retain the knowledge that Dr. Archibald had and the contacts that he had for some period of time,” Roberts said, “and I thought six months was a period of time in which we could do a search and find a new president. It appears that is going to make much longer, but the contract with Dr. Archibald expires after that period of time....

“My personal belief is that the museum is spending no more money than it would have if Dr. Archibald was employed for those six months. Everybody I talked to said if you want to move this forward, Bob Archibald has to go. Bob Archibald is gone. Now people are saying, did you have to do this to get rid of him? I had to make decisions that I thought accomplished the primary objective for many citizens of this community and many members of this panel.”

And he reiterated:

“It was not a bonus. It is a payment for services rendered over a six-month period. It is being paid on a month-to-month basis, and if he doesn’t render the services, he will not be paid….

“If one donor were to give a million dollars, and that would take him one hour or two hours, I would consider it to be worth it.”

A question of timing

Other pointed questioning dealt with the timing of the money for Archibald and the effective date of a newly negotiated agreement that was designed to give more power to the museum subdistrict commissioners. Roddy and other aldermen noted that Archibald’s consulting contract and money paid to him for unused vacation days were decided in late December, but the new agreement did not take effect until Jan. 1.

Subdistrict commissioners who were asked said they were not consulted about the arrangements made by the board of trustees and did not know about them before they were announced.

Roddy said that to him, such a situation shows a serious gap between those in charge of the museum and taxpayers who contribute $10 million a year to its $14 million annual budget.

“We’re talking about public perceptions now,” he said. “It sends, I think, to the public a signal that the trustees were completely out of touch with what people on the street thought.”

Among the changes in the new operating agreement, which was brokered last year by former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, is representation by subdistrict commissioners on the museum’s budget and compensation committees. Critics of the agreement have pushed for more, including adoption of written confirmation that the trustees would operate under the rules of the Missouri Sunshine Law and reduction of the current limit of $300,000 that can be spent without subdistrict and trustee approval.

Roberts said he agreed with those changes and they are effectively being followed now. He said trustees want to give the new agreement a chance to work and wait until a formal review later this year, as called for in the document, before changes are made.

Roddy pushed his point that with public money involved, those in charge have to be more receptive and sensitive to the perceptions of the taxpayers. Alderman Lyda Krewson, vice chair of the committee, said she thinks attitudes have changed after the land deal and the compensation controversy, but she also thinks it may take a while for the public to realize that fact.

“It does sound like it’s a new day at the museum,” she said, “and I wish you would have gotten an appraisal [for the property on Delmar] and I wish there had been more communication and sharing of information over the past few years.

“But I’m sad that these events have caused some real damage to the reputation of the museum. I think that the general public sometimes generalizes that these things are going on everywhere. I don’t think of it that way…. What I’m hearing here is that there is a new attitude and a new seriousness about your fiduciary duty to the taxpayers and to the residents of this community.”

First, do no harm

Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay, told the committee that the city would not be what it is without institutions like the history museum and the others in the Zoo-Museum District, so whatever changes are made have to ensure that above all, the institutions are not hurt.

“The land deal is not defensible,” he said. “Archibald’s compensation is not defensible. We absolutely have an obligation to the taxpayers to make sure that their money is spent wisely.”

But, he added, the changes that were made in the operating agreement show that the system has worked as it should, not through media reports but because the ZMD worked it out. Rainford said he opposed withholding tax money, as some commissioners have suggested, because of possible unintended consequences for the history museum and other institutions.

“We have to find the right balance between protecting taxpayers’ money and making sure we have world-class or national-class institutions,” he said.

“There are large donors to other institutions who are not part of this conversation but who are watching this very carefully.”

Roddy said the next step in the process is for his committee to come up with recommendations that will be shared with the city’s representatives on the subdistrict and the full district boards.

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