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History Museum head defends Archibald's consulting contract

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2013 - Under sometimes sharp questioning by commissioners of the Zoo-Museum District, the head of the Missouri History Museum board of trustees defended on Thursday the $45,000-a-month consulting contract granted to Robert Archibald after he resigned as head of the museum late last year.

John Roberts, who is also acting as de facto head of the museum until Archibald’s successor can be chosen, said that the six-month consulting agreement was designed so that Archibald can continue to cultivate big-time donors to the museum with whom he established relationships during his 25-year tenure as president.

Ideally, Roberts said, the donations that Archibald can secure will total more than the $270,000 he is paid.

Stressing that the consulting contract is important to establish a sense of continuity as the museum moves forward, Roberts said of Archibald’s connection with past donors:

“They want to give to someone they know.”

The exchange came during the museum’s presentation of its 2013 budget to the commissioners of the ZMD at a heavily attended meeting at the Center in Clayton. The audience included many members of the museum’s board of trustees as well as commissioners of its ZMD subdistrict and museum employees.

Of its $14 million budget for the coming year, $10 million comes from tax receipts allocated by the ZMD.  The commissioners will set a tentative tax rate for the museum in March and confirm the rate in September.

Commissioner Charles Valier, one of the most persistent critics of the museum’s operations – including compensation for Archibald, the purchase of land on Delmar for a never-constructed community center and what he has been told is a climate of fear among museum employees – said after the presentation that he feels the museum gets too much money.

He said he would like to see its tax rate reduced.

“I think they should get less money," he said, suggesting a cut in the $500,000 to $1 million range. “But I’m not optimistic I can get four other commissioners to go along with me.”

In response to earlier suggestions that the museum’s public subsidy might be cut, five members of the commission – Ben Uchitelle, Thomas Campbell, Robert Powell, Thelma Cook and Robert Lowery Sr. – said in a letter to subdistrict commissioners and trustees that they would not back such a move.

“Please be assured that the undersigned majority of the ZMD Board have made no decision, not [sic] have any intent at this time of withholding tax revenue from the Missouri History Museum,” they said in the letter dated Feb. 12.

“A majority of the ZMD Board believe that the recently adopted governance agreement addresses the majority issues which have been raised during the past four months regarding governance at the Missouri History Museum.”

That agreement, which was brokered by former Sen. John Danforth, gave subdistrict commissioners more authority over issues such as budget and compensation. Roberts stressed at Thursday’s meeting that the new joint budget committee will meet frequently and will keep close watch on spending at the museum, approving any unbudgeted expenditures at any level, not just those above $300,000 as called for in the agreement.

Subdistrict commissioners will also be part of the committee that soon will begin the search for Archibald’s successor, as will trustees and three members of the public: Jim Buford, Henry Givens Jr. and Marylen Mann. The committee will be headed by trustee Donna Wilkinson.

Commissioner Gloria Wessels, another frequent critic of museum operations, sharply questioned Roberts and Romondous Stover, chair of the subdistrict board, over what she considers weaknesses in the agreement – weaknesses that she said would not have been included if the ZMD board had been able to have a say in whether it was implemented.

Specifically, she said that in the past, the subdistrict had an opportunity each October to sever its ties with the museum and its trustees; now, she said, under the new agreement, such a move is subject to lengthy negotiations.

Clearly frustrated, Stover said that the 25-year relationship between the ZMD and the museum has largely worked well, and while some details about the new arrangement still have to be drawn up, there is no reason to criticize it at this point.

“The agreement is less than three months old,” he said.

“We didn’t have time to ask” about details, Wessels countered. “It makes me mad.”

Concerning the Delmar property, and the conclusion of a recent appraisal that the museum paid far too much for it in 2006 – a price of $875,000, when it was judged to be worth only $260,000 – Roberts was asked how that property’s value would be accounted for in the new budget.

He said there would be what he called “a substantial writeoff” but he said the amount had not yet been determined.

“We will absolutely make a final determination of what we believe the current value is,” he said, saying there were no plans for a second appraisal.

Friction between the two factions of the board erupted several times during the meeting, particularly concerning what some commissioners called unnecessarily negative portrayals of the museum in the media.

But Wessels said that such public criticism could have been avoided if subdistrict commissioners and trustees would have agreed to a joint investigation of disputed issues instead of going ahead and announcing they were calling for their own.

“We could have kept things out of the media,” she said. “We came to you and said please keep it out of the media, and two days later it came out in the media.”

Commissioner Lowery had at one time allied himself with Wessels, Valier and Glick but more recently has voted with the other side, creating a 5-3 majority. During Thursday’s meeting, he repeated earlier criticism that some members of the board were persisting in asking questions about issues that were beyond the scope of what the commissioners should be interested in.

“We are pursuing things that are absolutely none of our business,” Lowery said.

In an interview, he told the Beacon that the reason he had switched sides in many of the votes was to protest what he called needless duplication of effort.

He noted that the Board of Aldermen and the city’s circuit attorney are already looking into issues at the museum, in addition to the appraisal of the Delmar property and the recently concluded investigation into allegations of shredding of documents related to Archibald’s vacation days and compensation – an investigation that concluded there was no credible evidence that shredding had occurred.

“They’re going over the same material over and over and over again,” Lowery said. “We can’t keep on doing this. We are not the proper jurisdiction.

“We’re eight months into this inquiry. It’s gone on long enough.”

As the meeting wound to a close, Lowery echoed sentiments made by Campbell, that the controversies have too often overshadowed the good work that the museum does.

Praising Roberts and Stover for their accountability and responsiveness, Campbell said:

“This is a great institution. Far too little good has been said about what this institution has done over a long period of time.”

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.