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Issues Around Arcturis-St. Louis Science Center Deal Resurrected

meeting with science center
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

The controversy over a contract between the St. Louis Science Center and a design firm doesn’t seem to be going away.

In April, Zoo-Museum District board member Pat Whitaker resigned following conflict-of-interest allegations stemming from the Science Center awarding a contract to Arcturis, a company she founded.

On Thursday, ZMD board member Charles Valier again criticized Science Center dealings with the firm at a budget-presentation meeting at the Center.

One of the Science Center’s trustees — Traci O’Bryan — is also the CEO and president of Arcturis. Valier said emails between O’Bryan and the Science Center show her involvement in the contract-selection process.

“The trustee, who is also a CEO of company trying to do business with you, was actively participating in the whole process,” Valier said. “My complaint is that it’s an insider’s game. Being a trustee can only be perceived as being an advantage.”

Science Center President and CEO Bert Vescolani emphasized that O’Bryan is a trustee not a commissioner, an important distinction, he said.

“Commissioners have authority to move things forward. Trustees do not,” Vescolani said.

Phone Calls, Emails and Open-Meeting Laws

Valier also brought up a March 25 phone call and emails among 10 Science Center commissioners about the Arcturis project. These were both subject to Missouri’s open-meeting laws, he  said, but said that the Science Center didn’t comply.

The law states: “Public meetings, including meetings conducted by telephone, Internet or other electronic means, are to be held at reasonably convenient times and must be accessible to the public.”

“[That means] you have to give notice and you have to have minutes,” Valier said.

Science Center board chairman Doug Yaeger said the correspondence involved no decisions. It was mainly to find out whether the ZMD had an ethics code and if Whitaker might be violating it.

“We felt it was appropriate from a governance standpoint to talk that out because the optics would, could be misconstrued or would look like something where there was a conflict there,” Yaeger said.

Details of the Arcturis contract should be finalized “at some point in the not-too-distant future,” Yaeger said.  

Science Center officials said they’ll review their policies regarding Valier’s comments. Valier seemed pleased at that response.

“I don’t want my comments about conflict issues to overshadow the bigger picture of what this institution is doing,” Valier 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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