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STL’s Zoo-Museum District Board Raises Possibility Of Admission Charges For Some

Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

Free admission to St. Louis’ cultural institutions for non-residents could be a thing of the past if talk by the Zoo-Museum District board members turns to action.

On Wednesday night, the board discussed the possibility of charging admission to the Zoo, Art Museum, Science Center and other attractions in response to a report by St. Louis City Alderman Joe Roddy.

Admission would remain free for people who live in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Roddy issued his report in January. It called for the ZMD to “reinvent itself” in numerous ways, including: clarifying roles and responsibilities, developing a regional plan, establishing standards for performance for the five ZMD institutions and issuing an annual report.

The report also questioned the long-established policy of free admission. But ZMD board member Gloria Wessels (the woman facing right in the photo above) said any changes will have to wait until after the board recovers from recent conflict-of-interest allegations that resulted in last week’s resignation of former member Pat Whitaker.

Images from zoo museum district entities
Credit File photos and Wikipedia
The institutions of the Zoo Museum District are the Art Museum, Science Center, History Museum, Botanical Garden and Zoo.

“We have to repair what’s happened and we have to show the taxpayers we’re going to do a better job,” Wessels said.

Wessels said the state legislature would have to approve any admissions policy changes. The board also brought up the idea of raising the tax rate that funds the institutions and expanding the district to include St. Charles and St. Clair counties. Wessels said that charging admission might ultimately be an incentive for more counties to join the ZMD.

“You could say, 'If you join our district, and your citizens pay taxes towards our district, then you could get into our institutions free',” Wessels said.

Roddy appeared before the ZMD board Wednesday night to briefly explain his recommendations. Among the ideas that caught the favorable attention of some board members was one that dealt with comparing each of the five subdistricts — one representing each institution — to similar institutions around the country. That process could begin with asking each institution to supply the board with any comparative information they already have.

But Roddy cautioned the board to move slowly in any increased demands on the institutions.

“We don’t want to jeopardize the financial health of these organizations,” Roddy said.

Are Disclosure and Recusal Enough?

The Roddy report also called for the ZMD’s ethics code to be updated. To work on the ethics policy, the board broke into brainstorming groups as it did when considering the entire Roddy report.

The ethics policy came under more intense scrutiny after Whitaker resigned a few days after sending an email to ZMD board, disclosing her design firm had won a contract with the Science Center for a project that could run as high as $2.5 million.

The ZMD board’s current ethics code only requires disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, giving members until May 1 of each year to do so.  It does not prohibit board members, also called directors, from profiting from contracts with any one of the five ZMD institutions.

On Wednesday night, the board members concurred on several points, including shortening the time frame for disclosure.  But some members including Charles Valier believe board members should make a hard choice if their firm stands to profit from a contract with a ZMD institution: Resign from his or her company or leave the board.

Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
ZMD Board member Ben Uchitelle

Others including Ben Uchitelle believe that disclosing the information and recusing one’s self from decisions regarding that particular institution are often enough.

“We all agree about the disclosure. What we don’t agree on is what to do after the disclosure,” Uchitelle said.

A committee of Uchitelle, Valier and Tom Campbell will meet with ZMD board attorney Mike Chevill during the next few weeks to try to hammer out a compromise.

Prospective Whitaker Deal Known for Months

The Science Center contract with Pat Whitaker’s company was first revealed in her email to the ZMD board members on April 18.

But ZMD board chair Thelma Cook had known of the possibility of Whitaker’s firm contracting with a ZMD institution for two months. Cook told St. Louis Public Radio she had lunch with Whitaker in mid-February of this year when she first heard about it.

“She said something about her company might be doing some work with — I thought she said the History Museum,” Cook said.

Cook said she advised Whitaker to talk to an attorney but she didn’t mention it to other ZMD board members until March. On March 24, hours before a board meeting, Cook told ZMD board member Tom Campbell and executive director Pat Dougherty, and asked Dougherty to add an item to the agenda that Whitaker would have an announcement.

At the March 24 board meeting, when the item came up, Whitaker said she had no announcement and the meeting continued. Why didn’t Cook then bring up the matter to other board members?

“Maybe that’s my naiveté,” Cook said. “I did not assume the responsibility of communicating that for her. It just didn’t hit me as something I should announce — it was her thing.”

On March 27, the ZMD board voted on the tax rate for the Science Center. Did Cook know at that time that Whitaker’s potential contract was with the Science Center, not the History Museum?

“I can’t tell you where or when I heard it was the Science Center,” Cook said.

Dougherty said it was his understanding before March 24 that Whitaker’s potential deal was with the History Museum. Sometime between the March 24 and March 27 meetings, Dougherty said he heard from ZMD board attorney Mike Chevill that the Science Center was the institution that Whitaker’s company might work for.

Dougherty also did not mention this new information to the board before the Science Center tax rate vote. Since Whitaker had made no announcement March 24, he figured the deal was off the table.

“There was no announcement, so it seemed there was nothing to discuss,” Dougherty said.

Campbell told St. Louis Public Radio that he recalled a meeting, perhaps around March 24, about “something [for Pat Whitaker] to disclose something about her company.” Campbell said he did not know at the time of the March 27 Science Center vote that the deal was with the Science Center.

‘As Low of a Standard as You Can Get’

None of this sits well with ZMD board member Valier.

“They didn’t inform us, they didn’t do an investigation. They kept it to themselves,” Valier said.

Charles Valier
Credit File photo | Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
Charles Valier

Reporting of a possible conflict should take place as soon as it’s known, Valier said.

“If it’s kept secret — which is what went on here;  they covered it up— you get to the point where we were on the 21st, where it’s announced when it’s already a fait accompli,” Valier said.

Besides its disclosure provisions, the ZMD board ethics policy only requires board members to comply with the Missouri state statutes regarding conflicts of interest.

But simply harking to a state law is “about as low of a standard as you can get,” according to St. Louis attorney Gary Siegel, who chairs a Chief Disciplinary Counsel committee that  investigates, among other issues, conflict-of-interest complaints against attorneys.

“To say we won’t violate any conflict of interest to the extent it’s a crime — that’s hardly ambitious,” Siegel said.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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