Paul Thompson
Northeast News

The Kansas City, Missouri City Council is taking steps to take control of the American Jazz Museum’s ongoing affairs.

City leaders suggest that the efforts are an attempt to save the American Jazz Museum from mismanagement that led to a series of financial calamities during the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Those issues included an estimated $450,000 loss for the 2017 Jazz and Heritage Festival; the prospect in October 2017 of at least temporarily closing the museum’s doors if not for a $225,000 cash infusion from the City; and in March of 2018, the release of a damaging consultant report that recommended a “refresh” of the entire American Jazz Museum board and the replacement of Executive Director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, among other drastic measures intended to save the museum from, well, itself.

From the City’s perspective, the near-term goal is to stabilize the American Jazz Museum’s financial position, implement plans to protect the Museum’s City-owned collection, and start the process of revitalizing the visitor experience.

According to City Manager Troy Schulte, the City understands that more funds will need to be invested into the Museum to turn it into a success.

“At some point, we’re going to have to make an investment in the Jazz Museum. If you read the consulting report, it talks about upgrading the exhibits,” Schulte said. “The exhibits haven’t been changed, essentially, in 20 years. Eventually the City is going to spend some more money on that project.”

With the introduction of two new resolutions during the May 17 City Council session, the City is angling to ensure that any new investments in the American Jazz Museum will be incurred on its own terms.

Resolution No. 180395, which has six Council sponsors, contemplates the role of City Councilmembers on the board of the American Jazz Museum (AJM). The resolution calls for the elimination of a current requirement that at least one of the AJM Board members be a City Council representative from the district in which the museum is located.

Currently, 3rd District Councilmen Jermaine Reed and Quinton Lucas both serve on the AJM board, though Lucas has been outspoken about his preference to replace the entire board. In a public letter addressed to 1st District Councilman Scott Wagner – Chair of the City’s Finance and Governance committee – Lucas wrote that “it is important the museum follow through with the important consultant recommendation that the entirety of the board be replaced.” That statement leaves no wiggle room.

“We’re trying to create a board that is more dynamic,” Lucas said. “The best way to do that is by saying that we’re going to evaluate each Board position independently and objectively. I actually think that’s a vital step.”

After an April 25 Finance and Governance committee meeting, Reed suggested that he, too, planned to step down from the AJM Board.

“I will likely step down, of course, with the other board members,” Reed said at the time. “The new formation of the pared-down board has not been formed, and we will work diligently to ensure that the process takes place.”

New AJM Board Chair Michael Gerken has also indicated that the restructured Board is fully prepared to step down.

“Everybody that’s currently on the Board has agreed that we’re more than happy to step aside if that’s beneficial for the Board,” Gerken said.

Kositany-Buckner tendered her resignation during a May 15 AJM Board meeting, which also saw more than a dozen board members step down. However, between that April 25 meeting and a May 16 follow-up, some City Council members believe that Reed has continued to wield outsized influence over the AJM Board’s last gasp decision-making process. Perhaps most concerning to Council members was Reed’s attempt to hire Frank Ellis – former CEO of Swope Community Enterprises – to serve as the Museum’s Interim Executive Director.

Though Lucas joins Reed as one of eight AJM Board members that remained after May 15, he told the Northeast News last week that his primary objective at this point is to oversee a smooth transition. Lucas added that he wasn’t comfortable with the holdover AJM Board’s attempt to hire an Interim Executive Director from the private sector.

“I don’t think that trying to name a new Executive Director with no job description, with no application process…is appropriate,” Lucas said.

Resolution No. 180396, which boasts seven sponsors, aims to wrestle control of that hiring process away from the holdover Board by directing City Manager Troy Schulte not to expend City dollars on a contract for an Interim Executive Director. Instead, the resolution would direct Schulte to provide the museum with an Interim Executive Director from current City staff, while further directing the City Manager to withhold City funding for the American Jazz Museum without explicit Council authorization.

Schulte explained the present dynamic following the full Council session on May 17.

“What we’ve got is an option for an in-house staff member. We had some Board resistance by the American Jazz Museum to that, so we went out and found a potential consultant that would be willing to assist on a part-time basis,” Schulte said. “Right now, both options are before the American Jazz Museum Board.”

Though Resolution No. 180396 couldn’t prevent the AJM Board from naming an Interim Executive Director from the private sector using funds derived outside of City coffers, the reality is that the City holds considerable leverage over AJM affairs. During the Finance and Governance committee meeting on Wednesday, May 16, KCMO General Services Director Earnest Rouse suggested that the Museum would likely need an additional City investment even to pay the eight-month, $77,000 severance package negotiated for outgoing Executive Director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner.

If the restructured AJM Board were to reject the City Manager’s internal candidate, the Museum would put at risk the $750,000 which the City provides for the AJM operating budget. So while Schulte suggested after the May 17 City Council session that both internal and external candidates have been presented to the AJM Board, in practical terms the resolutions introduced on May 17 would effectively make the City’s internal candidate more closely akin to a mandate than a suggestion.
“$750,000 is roughly one-half of their operating budget,” Schulte said. “They’re going to have to work with us.”

For 1st District Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, the biggest issues at the Museum primarily revolve around accountability: for too long, he says, there hasn’t been any.

Sensing deep issues in the wake of the 2017 Jazz and Heritage Festival – which failed to entice sufficient ticket purchases and was marred by inclement weather – Wagner urged the AJM board as early as July 2017 to “come clean with any and all issues that the organization had.” Initially, Wagner received assurances that the Museum’s finances were under control. But by October 2017, the City Council learned that $225,000 in additional City funds were needed to keep the doors open. The Museum’s accounting practices, Wagner learned, were simply not up to standard.
“Part of the issue that has caused concern is that the books were not in good enough shape for there to be an audit,” Wagner said.

Wagner told the Northeast News following the May 17 Council session that both introduced resolutions – designed to prevent further surprises – will go before the Finance and Governance Committee meeting on Wednesday, May 23.

“Of course, three of the sponsors including myself are on the committee, so I have a feeling that we will probably support both of them,” Wagner said.

In a written response to the Northeast News last week, Councilman Reed questioned “the spirit of collaboration and transparency” of the two resolutions introduced on May 17, indicating that he hadn’t been informed of the legislation until that afternoon.

Reed’s surprise at the resolutions, combined with public comments from Council members following their introduction, suggest an inherent criticism of the 3rd District Councilman and 2019 mayoral candidate.

The disappointing Jazz and Heritage Festival continues to be a sore spot for the City Council and the AJM Board alike. Council members have maintained that funds were mismanaged during the planning of the event, and that the event’s losses were obfuscated until the Museum was in dire financial straits.

“It was going to bring people down to the district,” Schulte said. “On paper, it looked great. On paper doesn’t necessarily translate into reality.”

Wagner suggested that one key shortcoming of the event was the decision not to purchase event insurance. The organizers were overly reliant on ticket sales, which proved disastrous when nasty weather derailed the proceedings. What was left was a roughly $450,000 hole where the American Jazz Museum’s 2017-2018 fiscal year budget had once been.

“They were totally counting on ticket sales to get them in the black, which didn’t happen,” Wagner said. “When they actually did get rained out, they couldn’t cover anything.”

Just as troubling as the result, Wagner said, was the response.

“When I looked at nine months of minutes, there was no discussion of that event except for someone not liking the t-shirts,” he said.

Councilman Lucas has stated that even he – a member of the AJM Board – was kept in the dark about the level of financial duress.

“I think it’s fair to say right now that it should not have taken this long to get to the situation where we’re righting the ship,” said Lucas.

Representatives of the American Jazz Museum acknowledge mistakes, but insist that the losses were incurred despite the best intentions of the Board. How long, they have privately wondered, must they atone for mistakes made in a misguided attempt to do something great for the City?

Council members insist the American Jazz Museum itself is not a target. No public figure interviewed for this story suggested any goal moving forward other than correcting the managerial issues and putting the American Jazz Museum on a path for continued success.

“We intend to work with our staff and those remaining board members, like Mr. Gerken, to make sure that we have something world class,” Wagner said to conclude the May 16 Finance and Governance committee meeting. “The story of jazz deserves nothing less.”

Reached by phone on May 18, Lucas was resolute but exasperated at the state of affairs.

“I don’t want to see any more negative stories about the American Jazz Museum,” Lucas said. “I think the Jazz Museum deserves better.”