- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A member of St. Louis’ regional Zoo-Museum District has resigned amid conflict of interest questions over her architectural firm being awarded a building design contract.

Board member Pat Whitaker resigned on Tuesday, the same day the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/1l1Jmuw) reported that local firm Arcturis had won a St. Louis Science Center project contract, which would bring in about $45,000 to $100,000. Whitaker is Arcturis’ founder and board chairwoman.

The Zoo-Museum District board collects and distributes more than $70 million annually in property taxes to the science center and four other cultural institutions, including the St. Louis Zoo and the Missouri Botanical Garden. The science center receives $10 million of that amount.

Whitaker’s resignation after just three months on the board came as several board members criticized her dual role. 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, 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,” she wrote.

Whitaker publicly disclosed Monday that Arcturis had won a contract to design a pavilion at the science center, costing between $1.2 million and $2.5 million. Whitaker, who initially resisted calls to step down, said the project team would earn 10 percent of the total construction cost.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, who appointed Whitaker to the board, called her resignation “unfortunate” but “the best decision for everyone involved” in a written statement.

Dooley had touted her qualifications as including a degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Whitaker said that she actually attended a Harvard summer program, though her résumé and application did not make that distinction.

Whitaker said Arcturis bid on the contract in the fall of 2013, before her appointment. She learned last month that the project team was on a short list for the job of designing an indoor-outdoor pavilion as part of a large new exhibit on farming and agriculture.

According to Whitaker, board attorney Mike Chivell said her company’s proposal was not a conflict and didn’t require any recusal from votes unless Arcturis won the bid.

Board member Charlie Valier said the circumstances surrounding Whitaker’s board service suggest that a thorough review of its ethics policy is in order.

“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.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com