ST. LOUIS • The Zoo-Museum District board, which oversees $70 million a year in tax money, should “reinvent itself,” and become a watchdog for admission costs, attendance, board ethics and executive compensation, according to a city alderman.
Moreover, said Alderman Joe Roddy, chairman of the aldermanic parks committee, the region’s five taxpayer-funded cultural institutions must be judged on their performance — and earn their collective $70 million, instead of receiving it automatically.
After months of debate, Roddy has released his report examining the Missouri History Museum, and concluded not only that the museum must overhaul its governance, but that the Missouri Botanical Garden should do the same.
“It is really hard to be critical of these things. You don’t want to damage the institutions, because they are very much donation-driven,” Roddy said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch Editorial Board on Monday. “At the same time, everybody shouldn’t be running around with credit cards.”
The History Museum, on the eve of selecting its new president, did not make trustee Chairman John Roberts available for comment.
Lou Hamilton, a lobbyist at the Board of Aldermen and a consultant for the History Museum, said leaders didn’t have the report and would withhold comment until they could hear debate at Roddy’s parks committee meeting, scheduled for Thursday.
Roddy hadn’t called the History Museum about it, Hamilton said, “which we find a little disturbing.”
The nine-page report is the shortest of the many made public over the past 18 months. Roddy’s conclusions largely focus on oversight of the five institutions, first by the Zoo-Museum District board, and then by each museum’s publicly appointed subdistrict commissioners.
Some of Roddy’s recommendations could be adopted voluntarily by the Zoo-Museum board; others might require a change in state law.
Roddy began asking questions more than four years ago about executive pay at the five museums — the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Science Center, St. Louis Zoo and the History Museum.
His concerns encouraged the Zoo-Museum District board to begin a focused examination of one institution every year.
The district’s auditors are nearing completion of the third inspection, this one of the Art Museum. Results are expected this month.
The first, of the Science Center in 2011, revealed five-figure executive bonuses, a bevy of vice presidents, and about 80 employees with corporate credit cards.
The second examination, of the History Museum in 2012, uncovered a million-dollar land deal between the museum and a former board member, ex-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., as well as more than $500,000 worth of vacation-day buyback for former museum president Robert Archibald.
Local officials advocated strongly for cuts to Science Center expenses and a change in History Museum governance.
Zoo-Museum District board members Charlie Valier, Gloria Wessels and then-member Jerome Glick continued to fight for more public accountability, sometimes in bitter arguments at board meetings.
A year ago, Roddy agreed to hold committee hearings, which carry subpoena power, on History Museum governance and operations.
This week’s report represents the conclusion of that effort.
In it, Roddy is critical of History Museum subdistrict commissioners, who “failed to demand even the most basic financial information,” and whose attorney “was negligent in advising them of their authority or responsibility.”
The subdistrict commissioners at the Botanical Garden and History Museum, he continues, should not rubber-stamp museum expenses already made, as they have in the past, but should “set the budget and have final authority over all expenditures,” as is currently practiced at the Art Museum, Science Center and zoo.
Peggy Lents, vice president of communications at the Missouri Botanical Garden, said no one was available Monday at the garden to discuss the issue.
Roddy also envisions a Zoo-Museum District with vastly more authority and reach.
Board members, for instance, should establish performance guidelines tied to annual tax dollars. He recommends collecting statistics on attendance, donations and costs of admission, among other things. Roddy also imagines an enforceable code of commissioner ethics, commission training, and a cap on the public portion of executive pay.
The Zoo-Museum District should hire staff, if necessary, to compile all of that into a yearly Report to the Community, and distribute it to elected officials, the media and the public, he says.
Roddy has asked the Zoo-Museum District to respond at a parks committee meeting within 90 days.
Ben Uchitelle, chairman of the district’s board, said he didn’t want to comment before reading the report, but he noted that the board has been “a lot more engaged over the last several years.”
Roddy said he’s not sure what more will come from his work.
Mayor Francis Slay has appointed longtime Alderman Fred Wessels — husband to Gloria Wessels — to a post within his administration. That opens a seat for Roddy as chairman of Wessels’ old committee, the powerful Housing, Urban Development and Zoning committee, a post which he said he is strongly considering.
In the meantime, County Executive Charlie Dooley has pulled Glick off the Zoo-Museum District board. Roddy anticipates Slay will remove Valier and Gloria Wessels as well.
“And then,” he said, “you’re going to end up with a whole bunch of people just, you know, kind of rubber-stamping things.”