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ST. LOUIS • Pat Whitaker, founder and chairman of local design firm Arcturis, quit the Zoo-Museum District board Tuesday, following revelations that an institution paid by the board had awarded her company a contract worth tens of thousands of dollars.

In her resignation letter, Whitaker defended her actions, saying she had asked for advice from the board’s attorney, “and followed that advice.”

“I resign with a heavy heart,” she wrote in the letter, “but I do so in hope that everyone can get back to the business at hand and continue to develop the ZMD into the premier national model that it has become.”

Whitaker publicly disclosed Monday that Arcturis had won a contract to design a $1.2 million to $2.5 million pavilion at the St. Louis Science Center, which receives $10 million a year in property tax dollars collected by the Zoo-Museum District.

Whitaker said the project team would earn 10 percent of the total construction cost, and that Arcturis’ share would be $45,000 to $100,000.

Some Zoo-Museum District directors immediately denounced Whitaker’s dual role. At least two called on her to step down. Whitaker said Monday night she was not considering it.

But an aide to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said Tuesday morning that the situation was news to Dooley. Whitaker hadn’t told Dooley that she had bid on the project when he appointed her to the board in January, said spokeswoman Pat Washington. Dooley, Washington said, was “deeply disappointed.”

And by 3 p.m., Washington said Whitaker had submitted a letter of resignation.

Dooley called it “unfortunate” but “the best decision for everyone involved.”

“I’m sure it was a difficult personal decision,” Dooley said in a statement provided by Washington. “But I know Pat did not want to have the board be distracted from its work.

“And I appreciate her acting as quickly as she did,” Dooley continued.

The Zoo-Museum District oversees the disbursement of about $70 million in property tax dollars among the region’s five tax-supported cultural institutions — the Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Zoo and the Science Center.

Whitaker’s four-month tenure on the board followed a rocky period of conflicts of interest involving the St. Louis County Police Board.

First, the police board’s vice chairman, Floyd Warmann, resigned Aug. 1, citing an unspecified conflict of interest.

A few days later, Post-Dispatch stories revealed that a company co-owned by police board chairman Gregory Sansone, a Dooley appointee, had secured a $3.7 million heating and air-conditioning contract at the county’s new crime lab.

By the end of August, Sansone had resigned, kicking off several rounds of nominations, rejections and more searches for new candidates.

In October, County Councilman Steve Stenger pledged to “clean house” and announced he would run against Dooley in the August Democratic primary.

At the same time, the Zoo-Museum District board was deeply and often bitterly divided. Board members Gloria Wessels, Charlie Valier and Jerry Glick fought fervently for more change at the History Museum, in the wake of a report that the museum had, years prior, bought a plot of land from former museum board member and city Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.

When Glick’s term expired in December, Dooley declined to reappoint him. Dooley said Glick contributed to the “hyperbole and atmosphere” that prevented the Zoo-Museum District from doing its job.

On Jan. 7, he appointed Whitaker, noting her community service, position with Arcturis and graduation from the Harvard University School of Design.

Two days later, Whitaker acknowledged that her attendance at Harvard was a summer program — not a degree. Her résumé and application had been unclear, at best.

When the news broke Monday about Arcturis’ pending contract with the Science Center, Dooley said he was blindsided. He didn’t know about the Arcturis bid, he said at Tuesday night’s County Council meeting.

Whitaker said Arcturis bid on the contract last fall. She learned a month ago that the team, which included architect Gyo Obata and their consultants, was “shortlisted” for the job, to design an indoor-outdoor pavilion as part of a large new exhibit focused on farming and agriculture.

At that point, she said she consulted district counsel Mike Chivell, of Armstrong Teasdale, who said her company’s proposal with the Science Center was not, at that time, a conflict.

Chivell responded that Whitaker would need to disclose the contract and recuse herself from discussion or vote on the Science Center, but only if the Science Center awarded Arcturis the work.

Science Center President and CEO Bert Vescolani said Tuesday that he wasn’t worried about the project, and gave no suggestion that Arcturis would lose the job.

Some Zoo-Museum District board members said Whitaker’s resignation was probably for the better.

“I felt she had to resign,” said former Florissant Mayor Robert Lowery. “For the best of all concerned.”

The board is plenty divided now, he said; it’ll be good to put this to rest.

Board chairwoman Thelma Cook declined to speculate. “I think she exercised her options,” Cook said. “We have one less member at this point. The board will move forward with the seven members it has, until another member is appointed.”

But Valier, who has been agitating for a more active board for months, hoped the incident would lead the directors to further examine their ethics policies, and, perhaps, beef them up.

“I believe the real issue here all along has been the (Zoo-Museum District),” he said. “The ZMD represents the taxpayers. If the taxpayers have no confidence in the ZMD’s ability to ferret out problems, and correct them, then the whole concept of a tax-supported district for these cultural institutions is nothing.”

Steve Giegerich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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