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Introducing Two New Zoo-Museum District Board Members

Zoo-Museum Board Meeting discussing proposed changes to the code of ethics
Willis Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio

TheZoo-Museum District is welcoming new board members Christine Chadwick and Michelle Harris at a time of heated debate. We asked them about  the issues -- proposed changes to the ZMD Code of Ethics, questions regarding the budget review process for ZMD subdistricts, and an increased call for transparency surrounding ZMD decision-making.

We also talked with outgoing board member Gloria Wessels, who was often deeply engaged with these issues. Both new members expressed trust in the current board’s leadership and a willingness to learn from established members while stressing the importance of transparency in ZMD governance. 

Michelle Harris

Michelle Harris understands public interest in understanding the board’s decisions.

“You want to know where those tax dollars are being spent and you want to feel confident that they’re being spent wisely and that’s what it really comes down to,” she said. 

Harris is currently a Clayton alderman elected from Ward 2 in 2009 and again in 2011.  Her term times out this spring. For Harris, the new appointment will keep her where she’s happy: in public service.  She said she looks forward to learning from the board’s established members. She was appointed by outgoing County ExecutiveCharlie Dooley, who also reappointed former Clayton Mayor Ben Uchitelle. Harris fills the seat that was vacated by Pat Whitaker after a conflict-of-interest allegation.

“I trust in the existing leadership, and hope they have the history well in hand, and when I come in I can get an orientation that’s very thorough and can begin to be a good solid board member,” said Harris.

For Harris, upholding the ZMD’s reputation is an draw for economic investors and people. 

“Our cultural and educational institutions are really a big part of that and really important for what can draw people and draw corporations to settle in St. Louis and make St. Louis their home and their hub,”

Harris said it would be unfair to comment on existing issues facing the ZMD Board without full knowledge of the circumstances or previous experience as a board member.

She said she is charged with the responsibility “just do my best to make sure these institutions stay healthy and the public knows what’s going on with them.”

Christine Chadwick

Christine Chadwick left her position as executive director with leadership development organization Focus St. Louis in June. She said she was excited to learn that Mayor Francis Slay had appointed her to the ZMD board as one of the city representatives. She replaces Gloria Wessels.

“I was very flattered and honored. I think our five cultural institutions supported by this tax are really our regional jewels,” she said. 

She has been a part of 35 boards in the St. Louis region and understands the difficulties that can face board-organized institutions.

“I understand how both really effective boards operate and I’ve also witnessed dysfunctional boards as a consultant,” said Chadwick. 

She hopes to contribute that experience to her time on the board.

“I think integrity and accountability are paramount so I hope I can help bring that to the organization while needed,” said Chadwick.

The new ZMD board member believes the organization functions as an economic driver of the region and welcomes the chance to play an important role in effectively distributing and managing the taxpayer money under the ZMD’s care. Chadwick said it was too early to define her agenda as a ZMD board member and looks forward to hearing from current ZMD and Subdistrict board members and learning more from their expertise. 

“All these boards are comprised of, hopefully, very talented board leadership and board members,” Chadwick said.

Gloria Wessels

Outgoing board memberGloriaWessels served two terms as a ZMD board member. During her tenure, Wessels often stood for increased transparency and accountability regarding board matters.

“My main goal was to make sure that the taxpayers' moneys were used in the correct way,” she said.

Wessels sided with Charles Valier’s call for increased financial disclosures for board members and increased punitive measures for future code of ethics violations. She also pushed for subdistrict budget reform, thereby setting an earlier time for the ZMD board to review subdistricts' proposed budgets. She said these actions were likely partial cause of not being reappointed to the board.

“I’m really disappointed but not surprised that I haven’t been reappointed because I rocked the boat a little bit too much,” said Wessels. 

Wessels reflected on the support she received during her time on the board.

“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of support from the media and really support from a lot of citizens,” she said.  “I go places and people find out who I am and they say 'Oh, you’re doing such great work keep it up,' and it’s people I don’t even know.”

Both Chadwick and incoming board member Michelle Harris declined to address the ethics standards or other issues they will have to face starting with their first board meeting in early February.