Zoo Museum Board member's company wins Science Center contract [St. Louis Post-Dispatch :: ]
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 22--ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Science Center has awarded a building design contract worth tens of thousands of dollars to a board member of the regional Zoo Museum District, which sends the Science Center $10 million a year in tax money.
Pat Whitaker, founder and chairman of the local design and architecture firm Arcturis, publicly disclosed Monday that Arcturis won a contract to design a $1.2 million to $2.5 million pavilion at the center. Whitaker said the team will earn 10 percent of that, and Arcturis's share should be $45,000 to $100,000.
Other Zoo Museum District directors immediately denounced Whitaker's dual role and questioned why she hadn't recused herself from a vote last month setting the preliminary tax rate for the Science Center. Some called on her to step down.
"If you knew you had a bid out, to me that's a conflict right there," said board member Gloria Wessels. "It invites a lack of public trust in the eyes of the taxpayer."
"If you have a conflict," she said, "I don't think you should ever be on these boards."
Whitaker, 69, was appointed to the board in January by County Executive Charlie Dooley. The Zoo Museum District board collects and distributes more than $70 million in property tax dollars to 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.
About half of the Science Center's $20 million annual budget comes from the district.
On Friday, Whitaker sent an email to fellow board members, saying Arcturis, along with architect Gyo Obata and their consultants, had won the expansion contract.
Whitaker said she learned a month ago that the team was "shortlisted" for the job, to design an indoor-outdoor pavilion as part of a large new exhibit focused on farming and agriculture. The building, exhibits and landscaping will take the space formerly occupied by the center's inflatable Exploradome on Oakland Avenue.
Whitaker wrote in the email that she had checked then with district counsel Mike Chivell, of Armstrong Teasdale, who said her company's proposal with the Science Center was, at that time, not a conflict.
But at Monday afternoon's Zoo Museum District meeting, the board agreed that now, because the contract had been awarded, a conflict did exist. Chivell, who was not at the meeting, told other members that she needed to recuse herself from discussion or votes concerning the contract or the Science Center, but that she could remain on the board.
Some Zoo Museum District board members thought that was enough. "Our responsibility is to the letter of the law," said board chair Thelma Cook.
Others, however, argued that Whitaker should have recused herself from last month's vote approving preliminary tax rates for the year, in preparation for another $10 million disbursement to the Science Center.
"I think she should have disclosed to us that her firm was bidding on it," said Wessels. "And I don't think she should have voted."
"If she knew she had a bid on a contract, that's enough for her to recuse herself," Wessels continued. "Now she gets the job, and Mike says it's OK? How crazy is that?"
Wessels, along with board member Charlie Valier -- who have been pushing the board to become stricter guardians of tax dollars -- suggested at the March meeting that the board should adopt a tighter ethics policy.
Valier said the rest of the board just "blew it off."
"We set the tax rate for the Science Center," Valier said. "Don't you think we have some leverage over the Science Center? If we have that leverage and we have a board member who is trying to do business with the entity, how can you say that's not a conflict?"
Both Wessels and Valier said they thought Whitaker should quit the Zoo Museum District board.
After Monday's meeting, Whitaker said she didn't recuse herself from the March vote because Arcturis hadn't then won the contract.
"I basically did what our lawyer told me to do," she said.
She wanted to further explain the issue, she said, because the contract wasn't a "multi-zillion dollar" deal. She credited Obata, who designed the Science Center's iconic Planetarium, with likely swaying the Science Center's opinion.
Besides, Whitaker said, she no longer works at Arcturis -- she stepped down on Dec. 31 last year -- but remains chairman and still owns 37 percent of the company.
And she said she has no intention of stepping down.
David Hunn covers public projects & cultural institutions. Follow him on Twitter @davidhunn.
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