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After critics walk out, ZMD board votes money for History Museum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: After three persistent critics of the Missouri History Museum walked out of a meeting of the Zoo-Museum District board Tuesday, remaining board members voted unanimously to give the museum more than $448,000 that had earlier been denied.

The money, called “excess administrative fee revenue,” comes from the unused portion of the 5 percent in tax receipts that is withheld by the ZMD for administrative expenses. It routinely is allocated to the history museum and the four other institutions that are part of the district.

But this year, after criticism about spending and other operations at the museum, three ZMD commissioners – Charles Valier, Gloria Wessels and Jerry Glick – voted in May against the history museum’s allocation. Board chairman Ben Uchitelle abstained, resulting in a 4-3 vote in favor of giving the museum its share of the excess fees, making it appear that the motion had passed.

Later, though, it turned out that the abstention meant the motion had not passed, so it was put on this month’s meeting, which was held Tuesday at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Uchitelle and Robert Powell attended the meeting by telephone, and commissioner Robert Lowery Sr. was originally absent.

After Garden officials gave their annual presentation, Valier, Wessels and Glick left. Wessels later said the move was designed to prevent a quorum from being present and force the vote on the history museum money to be delayed until after investigations by the circuit attorney’s office and the Board of Aldermen could be completed.

Then, Lowery – who had been delayed because of a family illness – joined the meeting by phone. Thomas Campbell, the board’s vice chair, called the meeting back into session, and motions to allocate money to the history museum and the garden passed unanimously, 5-0. Money to the district’s other institutions had been approved earlier.

Reached after the vote, Wessels and Valier acknowledged they were trying to block the vote until at least the next meeting, in August.

“We were simply exercising an option we thought would work,” Valier said. “I think we made our statement, that quite simply until the grand jury either issues indictments or issues a report, we don’t think it’s appropriate to be passing on additional funds to the history museum.

“What happens if there are indictments and there is wrongdoing? The ZMD has effectively lost all leverage to deal with the history museum. Why would we do that? We’d look like fools.”

Wessels added:

“I think it’s a sad state of affairs to vote another half million dollars to the history museum. I think our oversight is really poor. I think the ZMD board needs to do more.

“Instead of giving our money back to all the institutions, we need to have a better way to monitor what the institutions do. Having just one budget meeting a year is not good oversight.”

Campbell, who chaired Tuesday's meeting, said afterward that he did not know that Lowery would be joining by phone midway through.

“He told me he this morning he was going to try to participate in as much of the meeting as possible.”

And, he said, he wasn’t aware that the three opponents of voting the money to the history museum planned to walk out.

“They send nothing to me beforehand,” he said. “As they passed me, they just said, ‘We’ve got to leave.’”

John Roberts, head of the history museum's board of trustees, said in a statement after the vote:

"The Missouri History Museum is pleased at today’s decision by the ZMD District to release the remaining funds collected by the ZMD on behalf of the MHM subdistrict for calendar year 2012.

"The ZMD lawfully retains a small percentage of the tax revenues collected each year in support of the subdistrict institutions to cover its own administrative costs. At the conclusion of each year, the difference between the funds retained, and the actual expenses of the ZMD is remitted to the individual institutions in fulfillment of their respective missions.

"Today's action fulfills the ZMD's responsibilities to the Missouri History Museum for calendar year 2012."

J. Patrick Dougherty, executive director of the district, said that historically, the excess administrative revenue has been passed on in full to each of the five institutions in the district – the history museum, the garden, the zoo, the art museum and the science center -- on a pro rata basis depending on their tax rate.

In 2007, he said, none of the institutions was voted the money in anticipation of possible adverse attendance because of the impending closure and reconstruction of Interstate 64.

At one point, four separate inquiries were being held into the history museum.

An appraisal into land on Delmar that was bought in 2006 for use as a community center but never developed found that the tract had been worth $260,000, though the museum paid $875,000. A separate investigation, into allegations of improper handling of documents at the museum, found no evidence of wrongdoing, according to a preliminary report.

Still outstanding are a probe by the circuit attorney’s office and one by the Board of Aldermen. No date for a final report by the circuit attorney or for resumption of hearings by the aldermen has been set.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.