KC council moves to gain more control over American Jazz Museum, but disarray remains

The American Jazz Museum is still in need of a permanent director.
The American Jazz Museum is still in need of a permanent director. File photo

The Kansas City Council, unhappy with what it sees as continued disarray and lack of transparency at the American Jazz Museum, moved Thursday to exert more direct control over changes at the troubled institution in the 18th & Vine district.

A seven-member majority introduced a resolution that requires City Manager Troy Schulte to name an interim executive director for the museum from his senior staff. The incumbent executive director, Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, stepped down on Tuesday.

The city would also freeze funding if the museum board tried to hire anyone outside City Hall. The city provides about 40 percent of the museum's funding and has budgeted $750,000 for the current fiscal year.

Another resolution, sponsored by six members, would allow the mayor to re-evaluate the current requirement that one of the two city government appointees to the board be a council member from the Third District, where the museum is located. Councilmen Quinton Lucas and Jermaine Reed, both from the Third District, currently sit on the board.

"I think there is a group of council people who believe that despite the changes made at the American Jazz Museum, we are very concerned about things moving forward," said Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, lead sponsor of the two resolutions.

The move comes about five weeks after the release of a scathing report commissioned by the city from Museum Management Consultants of San Francisco.

Even now, though, there appears to be disharmony over the naming of the interim leader.

Wagner said council members had been operating under the assumption that Schulte would recruit the interim executive director from city government. His choice for the post is assistant city manager Kimiko Gilmore, who has handled other special assignments for the manager.

But in recent days, members learned that Reed had called for the appointment of E. Frank Ellis, former executive director of Swope Community Enterprises and past chairman of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

In an interview, Wagner said Reed has exerted outsized and counterproductive influence on the board because he (and Lucas) represent the legislative body that controls the purse strings. The report recommended that council members not serve on the board because of the inherent conflict of interest.

"What we are concerned about is that there seems to be only one person on the board whose views matter," said Wagner, chair of the council's finance and governance committee, referring to Reed.

Asked if he thought Reed was undermining efforts to fix the museum, he said: "If you were to ask individuals associated with the museum that is the answer you would get." Wagner added that he found Reed unhelpful when he asked for information.

Mayoral politics is an underlying source of tension in the museum controversy. Wagner and Reed are both announced candidates in the 2019 campaign. Lucas, who is widely expected to enter the 2019 race, initially said he would leave the board but reconsidered.

Reed, in Austin attending the National League of Cities, said in a text message Thursday that he'd always tried to act in the best interests of the museum and the city.

"If my colleagues believe that I have done anything misleading or inappropriate at any point since I began serving on the AJM board, I welcome that it be brought to my attention," Reed said. He also called for council members to "not spend time tearing apart each other for the purposes of headline making or political gamesmanship."

Consultants said in the April report that the 20-year-old museum, operated by a nonprofit in partnership with the city, suffered from stale exhibits, lack of clarity about its mission and failure to engage the city's philanthropic leadership. They also cited poor financial management and low staff morale, calling out Kositany-Buckner for "numerous missteps, questionable decisions and a lack of transparency."

"AJM needs a complete rebirth, starting with its leadership, but continuing with a revamped financial model, visitor experience and operational infrastructure," the report said.

Among its more than two-dozen recommendations, the report advised the city to "refresh staff and board leadership."

Council members have expressed dismay about the pace of change, especially on the museum's board of directors. As recommended by consultants, the board's size has been cut from 22 to 8 (including Lucas and Reed). But the eight are all holdover members, and there is little evidence that new members with needed skills — especially in fundraising — are being identified.

Wagner and other members were also unhappy when informed this week that Kositany-Buckner's $77,000 severance package, set by the board, would likely necessitate a request for additional city funding. She has held the job since January 2016.

"We need to have a more watchful eye," said Councilman Lee Barnes, Jr., who supported both resolutions. "There's been a lot of buzz about things happening there, but we only hear it through the grapevine."

Museum leaders say that they have been working for many months on the deficiencies outlined in the report. New board chair Michael Gerken, a retired Waddell & Reed executive, who replaced Anita Maltbia, told a council committee Wednesday that they needed time and more resources.

"In a very short time period the board was asked to do a number of things, and those things have been executed," Gerken said, citing a new financial reporting system as one example.

The two measures will be discussed by a council committee next week.

In addition to Wagner, Barnes and Lucas, council members supporting the resolution requiring the city manager to hire the interim director were Teresa Loar, Dan Fowler, Kevin McManus and Katheryn Shields.

All except Shields supported the resolution allowing the mayor to reconsider the requirement for a Third District council member to sit on the museum board.

Related stories from Kansas City Star