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History Museum agenda: Retain, restore and refocus

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 28, 2013 - To John Roberts, the three R’s in the coming months will mean restoring public confidence, retaining donors and members and refocusing on the programs and purpose of the Missouri History Museum.

Roberts heads the museum’s board of trustees and, with the departure of Robert Archibald, has also become its de facto president. He plans to let the institution’s managing directors run operations in their respective areas while the museum searches for Archibald’s replacement, but if a decision needs to be made, he told the Beacon, he will be the one who makes it.

And, he said, he may seek Archibald’s advice in doing so. After signing a contract to stay at the museum in 2013, Archibald abruptly changed course last month, resigning his post but agreeing to a six-month $270,000 consulting contract.

Further, Roberts said both the trustees and the commissioners of the museum’s subdistrict of the Zoo-Museum District will be meeting more frequently and keeping a closer eye on operations to help win back public confidence.

“If people want more oversight, by golly we’re going to have more oversight,” he said. “If the subdistrict commissioners have to work more, they’re going to work more. If the trustees have to work more, they’re going to work more. That’s just the facts."

In a wide-ranging interview Friday, Roberts said that as he operates as de facto head of the museum, if he needs counsel to help resolve disputes or make recommendations, he wouldn’t hesitate to seek Archibald’s input, though the final decision would be his.

What else is the former president of the museum likely to do to earn his consulting fee? Roberts said that given the controversy in recent months over a number of issues – the purchase of land on Delmar for use as a community center that was never built, Archibald’s compensation and allegations of an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among museum employees – some donors to the museum have not come through with their customary gifts.

Archibald plans to try to reassure them that their money is still needed and would be put to good use, Roberts said.

“Some donors are holding back because of the controversy and because they are displeased that Bob is no longer at the institution,” he said. “He’s going to help me with regard to bringing those donors back into the fold. If he can do that, that would easily pay for his consulting contract.”

That’s a big part of the retention effort that will be requiring the attention of Roberts, other trustees and the commissioners of the museum’s subdistrict of the Zoo-Museum District in the coming months. Restoring public confidence and refocusing attention on the good things going on at the museum may take a lot longer.

As Roberts told a meeting of the subdistrict commissioners at the museum on Thursday:

“We’ve done a very, very poor job of telling people what the value of the museum really is. We’ve been doing the right things, but we haven’t told anybody…. It seems to me we’ve got a great opportunity to do more to reach out to the community.”

Part of the job of restoring public confidence may depend on the outcome of three investigations now going on. To look into allegations of document shredding and employee intimidation, the trustees have engaged former U.S. Attorney Edward Dowd Jr.

Those allegations were brought forth by three Zoo-Museum District commissioners who have consistently been critical of Archibald and the History Museum’s operations, particularly its lack of openness.

The commissioners – Gloria Wessels, Charles Valier and Jerry Glick – have frequently clashed with their fellow board members at the ZMD, on topics large (like the conclusions of an audit report) and small, like whether Wessels was authorized to use ZMD stationery when she sent out a letter recently to History Museum employees.

And when Roberts sent a statement to museum workers giving his views of some of the issues that have embroiled the museum in recent months, Wessels and Valier sent out a detailed, annotated response, answering his statement point by point.

Given that acrimonious atmosphere, clearing the air will be a big step toward achieving the restoration of public confidence and refocusing on the museum’s main work that Roberts hopes to achieve in the coming months. He has no timetable for Dowd to finish his work, and no budget either.

He said the money to pay for the probe will come from private funds that would otherwise have been used to support museum programs and projects.

“In my mind,” he said, “we could easily bill the taxpayers for this. The allegations were made by appointed members of the ZMD board that we felt were serious enough to warrant the investigation. We’re not going to request reimbursement from taxpayers, but in my view we would have the right to do so.”

He said no financial limits were placed on the investigation because trustees want Dowd to follow any line of inquiry that he wants to. When the results of the investigation are in, Roberts said, taxpayers will know about them.

“If it’s a written report,” he said, “we’ll make that public. If it’s an oral report, we’ll make him available.”

Roberts and his predecessor as head of the board of trustees, Ray Stranghoener, have been criticized by the dissident members of the ZMD board for saying that they don’t believe Archibald has done anything wrong – a view that the critics say shows that the outcome of the investigation is predetermined.

Roberts dismissed that concern, saying:

“We would assume they would not make spurious allegations. Therefore we took them seriously. Did we believe that the investigation was going to find anything? We had no particular reason to believe it at that point, and we don’t have any reason to think that today. But that does not prejudice in any way their work. If it did, we would never do the investigation.

“I think where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Whether I believe it or not, it seems prudent to take that seriously, and that’s what we’re doing. Our mission is to make employees understand their views are welcome, that they are not subject to reprimand, if that was the case.”

Other investigations have been announced by Alderman Joe Roddy and Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce. Roberts said he and other trustees have not received subpoenas in the probes and they are willing to provide whatever information investigators are looking for.

Letting the sunshine in

Concerning renewed pledges of openness in the operation of the museum, Roberts pointed to the terms of the new contract between the trustees and the commissioners that was negotiated by former Sen. John C. Danforth last year. He pointed out that it was adopted unanimously by both groups, which have promised to abide by provisions of the state’s Sunshine Law even though the museum technically may not be bound by it in some circumstances.

Asked why the trustees were not willing to put into writing an agreement that would make them follow the Sunshine Law, Roberts pointed out that technically the trustees are a private nonprofit group, but since they are now operating jointly with publicly appointed commissioners in areas such as budget and compensation, they will go along with the law.

“We’ve said that we’re going to do that,” he said, “and we are. Putting it in writing commits a lot of future generations. I can only commit for myself, and I’m saying we’re going to do it.

“Right now, I think the trustees have made significant accommodations with regard to a much stronger governance and oversight format than any of the other organizations, including the Zoo and the Art Museum. We have two levels of oversight. A greater number of concessions were made. I don’t think the changes were given grudgingly.”

One of those concessions required approval by the joint budget committee of any unbudgeted expenditures greater than $300,000. Roberts said that he would go further than that and get approval for amounts much smaller than that, but he doesn’t expect that to be necessary very often because the budget committee will be meeting more often than it has in the past.

As far as problems with employee morale and allegations of intimidation, Roberts said a confidential employee survey is planned to clarify how workers feel about the atmosphere in which they operate.  Any problems that surface there, or at monthly employee meetings, will be dealt with, he said.

“It’s a new day at the museum,” he said of employee relations, “and we’re only as good as they are. We need to make some changes, we need to improve the culture, so we’re going to do that.”

He also hopes to tighten and clarify policies and procedures that the museum and its employees use to guide their operations.

“Governance, it seems to me, has been a little loose and ad hoc,” he told the commissioners’ meeting on Thursday.

The search committee for Archibald’s successor will be headed by trustee Donna Wilkinson, who Roberts said has acted in a similar capacity for Opera Theatre and the Science Center. He said the committee would be made up of an equal number of members from the trustees and the commissioners, plus other members of the general public.

He hopes that a new president for the museum would be named in the third quarter of this year. At that point, he said, he can return to the life of retirement he had after a career at Arthur Andersen, then a stint with Civic Progress.

“I’m very selfish,” he told the commissioners. “From my own standpoint, the sooner the better.”

In the interview, he added:

“Until we hire the person, there is going to be a certain amount of uncertainty, which breeds anxiety. So we’re better served to move quicker rather than more slowly.”

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