The Governor’s Mansion takeover story rolls on, with some additional reporting today in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Leslie Newell Peacock’s story for the Arkansas Times that gets into the control issues that are the root of the reason for legislation by which Gov. Asa Hutchinson stripped control of the public facility from an appointed commission.
* The D-G talked to former Gov. Mike Beebe, who credited the Mansion Commission, with being a hard-working group that worked in the public interest (and remember he inherited a commission comprised of Mike Huckabee appointees.) Yes, they’d had rodent problems, but they were addressed. Indeed, the continued D-G reporting provides no indication of where the Commission failed to act on maintenance concerns. Under the current commission, the Hutchinsons moved ahead with a $1.5 million grant application to an agency overseen by Mansion Commission member Stacy Hurst, the Heritage Department director, to address maintenance issues but also to do some $150,000 work for private quarters for the Hutchinsons and buy a $2,000 big screen TV and their own $3,500 washer and dryer, where previous occupants shared the Mansion laundry facilities. The D-G article didn’t note a key sentence in the grant application after a recitation of work done for areas used by the public: “….’it is well past time to turn our focus to the comforts of the First family’.”
The Mansion takeover was because of a lack of rules and rats? Read Leslie Peacock.
* Peacock’s story, now posted on the Times website, details some of the tension between First Lady Susan Hutchinson over decorating issues (Hutchinson rejected some antique pieces acquired by the Commission). A central dispute was resistance by Commissioner Kaki Hockersmith to Hutchinson’s desire to spend more than $190,000 for a water feature and altered installation for a shiny bit of sculpture donated during the Beebe days. It is an excessive expenditure for an item purchased at a Tabriz auction for $3,500. It could be generously valued at $25,000 — the creator’s own offering price for an identical piece.
Peacock notes that the Commission waived pre-approval on a number of purchases Susan Hutchinson wanted to make — and she spent freely, including new silk wallpaper, a $1,000 toilet, lavish Christmas decorations bought on a buying spree at Dallas markets and a number of purchases from Tipton and Hurst, the flower and decor shop co-owned by Stacy Hurst. Hurst, formerly an ex officio member of the Commission, is a voting member under the new legislation. State officials are required to report sales of $1,000 or more to the governmental bodies “for which they serve.” Hurst reports no such sales. She’d presumably argue that sales to the Governor’s Mansion, or through its fund-raising Association, don’t qualify as sales to the Mansion Commission itself. Her ongoing business with the Mansion presents the appearance of an obvious conflict of interest, particularly since she’s stepped up to defend the Hutchinson takeover legislation.
Mansion use is, as I’ve written, a key issue:
The use of the Grand Hall has also apparently been a sore spot. In March 2015, Bingham requested that the commission not schedule public events on the weekends “to allow the family to have the house for private family use during that time.” He also said the family’s schedule should take precedence over weekday events.
In May, Commission Chairman Mike Mayton reminded the first lady “the Grand Hall must be rented out on an ongoing basis in order to generate revenue to cover the utility bills for the whole property.” In response, Hutchinson “commented on the pressure she feels as a result of that policy.”
The Hutchinson administration citation of Freedom of Information violations (a meeting held by e-mail) needs to be viewed in light of the fact that the Hutchinsons’ mansion administrator, Don Bingham, and Stacy Hurst (a former city board member and current airport commissioner) were present and presumably had some responsibility themselves for minding open meeting rules. The FOI complaint also should be viewed in the context of the Hutchinson administration’s reluctance to supply information and building access to the Arkansas Times. We are still awaiting full details on Mansion purchases and use of the building, particularly an accounting of drawdown of Association money for Hutchinson purchases. The D-G, given more access, has been more accommodating in return. It swallowed, 1) the line that the legislation wasn’t the Hutchinsons’ idea; 2) that it was because of rules and FOI violations (in which Hutchinson people were complicit and/or equally guilty), and 3) that somehow this was all about rats (a problem dealt with) and generally a slum left behind by the Beebes.
Fact is, the Commission did not stand in the way of upkeep measures. Rather, it took steps to facilitate them. Over the span of many years, some governors have been able to work with the Commission without discord (the Beebes, notably) and some (Huckabees and Hutchinsons) have not. Gov. Hutchinson has managed to achieve what Mike Huckabee could not, however, total control of the Mansion.
The difference in tone and style couldn’t be clearer. The Hutchinsons have made excuses, offered dishonest defenses through a spokesman (no minutes of Commission meetings) and attacked others to cover their legislative takeover. Mike Beebe, on the other hand, was quoted in the D-G:
“Our approach was, it wasn’t our house. We were fortunate to get to live there for a while, but we recognized the house belonged to the people of Arkansas,” said Mike Beebe, who served two four-year terms.
“I think that attitude permeated our eight years there, and we were really mindful of who the house belonged to and impressed by the history and the important fiduciary relationship that the commission had.”