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Zoo Museum District Makes No Progress On Ethics Code; Zoo Audit Accepted

ZMD Board members continue debate over ethics code language
Willis Ryder Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio

The Zoo Museum District’s Thursday meeting was defined by two events: a stymied vote about language for its new code of ethics and a recent audit of the St. Louis Zoo. 

Code of Ethics Contention

The continued discussion regarding language for a new code of ethics drew ire from those wanting to include stricter language and members preferring a more relaxed approach.  Immediately prior to a vote on which language to forward on to city, county, and board council, board member Gloria Wessels left the meeting.

“It’s just so fixed it aggravates me,” she said about the imminent vote.

The board intended to vote on whether language proposed by some members of the ethics committee would be passed to St. Louis, St. Louis County, and the Board’s attorney Michael Chivell. As during previous meetings, board member Tom Campbell favored proceeding with language that did not include measures favored by board member Charles Valier. Those would provide for in-depth financial disclosure requirements, stronger conflicts of interest provisions, and language binding sub-districts to similar codes. 

“This is too important a topic for us to rush through,” said Valier about his continued push for the inclusion of tougher language.

Board Member Ben Uchitelle disagreed.  “I think we’re doing an exhaustive job with this,” he said. 

Tensions came to a head during a call to proceed with the vote on which language to provide.  In frustration Wessels removed herself from the meeting, leaving the board one member short of a quorum and unable to hold a vote. Following Wessels departure, Board Chair Thelma Cook called a short recess before turning to other matters. Executive Director Patrick Dougherty said he was unsure how the board would proceed with the matter.

Addressing the Zoo Audit

Approximately 20 St. Louis Zoo staff members were on hand for the ZMD’s review of the Zoo’s recent audit.

Rick Gratza, CPA, a representative of Kerbert, Eck, and Braeckel outlined eight recommendations for improvement to the Zoo.

  1. Ensure missing financial disclosure filings are completed and made available for review.
  2. Publish public notice before committee meetings as well as before commissioners meetings.
  3. Amend previous IRS 990 filings.
  4. Establish a budget allowance for promised major gifts that aren’t received.
  5. Strengthen procurement policies (policies for getting new animals).
  6. Reconcile tax returns in a timely fashion.
  7. Develop a written plan and timeline for a full equipment inventory and implement a tagging structure to track equipment (already underway).
  8. Make complete annual survey of comparable position compensation for president and make compensation studies available for review.
  9. Ensure multiple bids are solicited for onsite work. 

Following the auditor’s presentation, former St. Louis Mayor Jim Conway, and current Zoo commissioner, read a statement of support for the Zoo, and staff responded to questions from the board. The ZMD’s primary area of inquiry focused on compensation for Zoo President Jeffery P. Bonner. Bonner was quick to assert that taxpayers did not suffer the burden of his salary.
“It can come from philanthropic sources, it can come from earned income, but we don’t bill the taxpayers,” he said.  

He also assured the ZMD that financial disclosure forms would be provided, 990 filings would be amended, and the budget would incorporate allowances for non-received major gifts. 

Bonner challenged the audit on the area of procurement policies, outlining difficulties of creating policy for possibly unique circumstance. He also stressed the difficulty of soliciting multiple bids for timely maintenance projects, citing the recent example of needing to repair a Zoo wall after a bus crashed into it.

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