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Zoo-Museum District commissioners deadlock on approving History Museum audit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 28, 2012 - Commissioners of the Zoo-Museum District deadlocked Wednesday on whether to approve a report from the audit committee highly critical of the Missouri History Museum, but not before board members on both sides reiterated arguments for and against it.

Some of the strongest criticisms made during the board’s meeting in Clayton were of the compensation for museum president Robert Archibald, including a plan to pay him a lump sum for 410 unused vacation days, valued at more than $522,000.

Museum officials say the money will be paid out of private donations, not tax funds, but that plan did not appease the four members of the district’s board who voted in favor of approving the audit.

One of them, Charles Valier, criticized both the payout for the vacation days and an arrangement that has given Archibald eight weeks of vacation annually plus another six weeks in which he can do writing and research.

“They’ve taken the person who’s running the institution and said, you don’t have to be there three and a half months out of the year,” Valier said. “The institution will run itself.”

He also criticized in general the oversight by the museum’s board of trustees, which is in charge of the day-to-day operation of the museum and has negotiated Archibald’s contracts. He noted that $10 million of the museum’s $14 million annual budget comes from public funds.

“Who’s protecting the taxpayers?” Valier asked. “Surely not the trustees. They want to shovel money out the door as soon as possible.”

Voting in favor of approving the report were Valier and fellow commissioners Gloria Wessels, who headed the committee that drew up the audit, Robert Lowery Sr. and Jerome Glick. On the other side were Ben Uchitelle, chairman of the board, and commissioners Thomas Campbell, Robert Powell and Thelma Cook. (Read the report below.)

Uchitelle said many of the problems mentioned in the report have been addressed by a new arrangement between the museum subdistrict commissioners and the board of trustees. The changes, negotiated by former U.S. Sen. John Danforth and approved unanimously by both sides, gives the subdistrict commissioners a voice on budget and compensation matters that they did not have before.

One big issue in the audit committee's report was the purchase by the museum of a property on Delmar that was originally designated as the site of a community center but never developed. The site had been owned by former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., who once served on the museum board but was no longer a trustee when the deal was completed.

The report strongly criticized the transaction, raising the possibility of a conflict of interest and noting that the property was purchased without an appraisal and without the knowledge of environmental problems at the site.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the commissioners approved a proposal to conduct appraisals of the property to determine what its purchase price should have been.

On the same day that the changes in the contract between the trustees and the subdistrict commissioners were approved, in late October, the trustees also shortened Archibald’s upcoming contract, beginning Jan. 1, 2013, to one year from three. But Valier has noted that the action was taken before the new authority over compensation by the subdistrict commissioners had taken effect, so they had no say over how much he will be paid.

At Wednesday’s meeting, it was revealed that Archibald had signed the contract. Valier also released an internal memo from Katie Van Allen, the managing director of museum services, that said the museum’s 2013 budget would be tight and revenue is flat.

As a result, she said, vacant positions would remain vacant next year, travel and seminars would be curtailed and two exhibits set to open next year – called “Little Black Dress” and “History Clubhouse” – have been delayed.

Valier and others pointed to the fact that Archibald will be paid for his unused vacation days at the same time that the museum is experiencing a tight budget as a lack of fiscal responsibility on the part of the trustees.

Cook, one of the commissioners who voted against approving the audit report, said she did not like how the board of trustees was being criticized, saying that its members are volunteers who work hard on behalf of the museum.

“There are exemplary members of the board of trustees,” she said.

The Zoo-Museum District engaged Kerber, Eck & Braeckel to review certain practices of the History Museum. After it finished its report, the ZMD audit committee issued its own summation of the KEB findings and the committee's response to them. Read the ZMD audit committee's report below.

And Campbell, who has been strongly outspoken in his opposition to the audit, called the report “severely and perhaps irreparably flawed” and used words like “reckless,” “irresponsible,” “condescending,” “disrespectful” and “inflammatory” to describe its language and the way that its supporters have discussed the audit's findings and members of the board of trustees.

But those in favor of the report said its conclusions show a severe lack of oversight on behalf of people who should be more careful spending taxpayers’ dollars.

“Someone didn’t do their job,” said Glick, adding, “There is a culture of non-transparency at every turn.”

Since word of the purchase of the property on Delmar and the details of Archibald’s compensation have become public, at first through stories in the Post-Dispatch, the museum has hired the public relations firm of Fleishman-Hillard to help deal with the negative publicity.

According to its contract with Fleishman-Hillard, the museum is paying no more than $15,000 a month between Sept. 19 and the end of 2012. The contract said it is charging $395 an hour, a 20 percent discount from its normal fee of $495 an hour, and a spokesman for the PR firm said it is actually working more hours than its fee covers.

Ben Uchitelle and John Danforth are donors to the Beacon. 

2012 ZMD Report of the Audit Committee

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