Layet Johnson

Here’s the thing about 2023: You have to grade it on a curve.

Yes, it was our first year of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the new governor managed to underperform even the low expectations we had for her last November. And yes, Sanders allies at the state Capitol passed the worst corpus of legislation in living memory, bestowing upon us universal school vouchers, weaker child labor laws, less public transparency, potential criminal penalties for librarians, tax cuts for the well-to-do, various anti-woke demagoguery, a giant dollop of cash for a new prison, and on and on. Oh — and there was a tornado.

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But 2023 was also the first year it felt like the clouds of the pandemic had fully lifted. COVID-19 is still with us, of course, and still a serious danger for many, but it’s declined to a slow simmer thanks to boosters and good old-fashioned natural immunity. Gathering with friends and family is no longer a novelty.

In January, if you recall, everyone was sure the U.S. was headed for recession. Instead, the economy kept chugging. Arkansas enjoyed record-low unemployment and a hefty budget surplus (which our leaders are happily squandering on even more tax cuts). Little Rock’s alarming spike in homicides in 2022 receded back to a merely terrible baseline, reflecting national trends.

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So that was 2023. A chronically broken health care system, but not a crippling pandemic. Inflation and inequality, but not economic ruin. The typical gun rampages and senseless shootings, but not the dystopian collapse of many people’s paranoid fears and fantasies. The March 31 tornado, which ravaged hundreds of homes but caused only a single death in Pulaski County, seems like a fairly good metaphor. Things weren’t great; they could have been a whole lot worse.

Now then. Brace yourselves for 2024.

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Brian Chilson
Worst redecorating job

We find that even one Huckabee at a time is excessive. Now, visitors to the governor’s meeting room get a twofer. On Jan. 25, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders held a press conference solely to tell us she was moving her dad’s portrait from the Capitol rotunda to the wood-paneled conference chamber adjacent to her office. Mike Huckabee was there in person to thank God for his daughter’s leadership.

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Brian Chilson
Asa Hutchinson

Best dressed

Asa Hutchinson might be getting creamed in the Republican primary, but at least he looks fly. So says Derek Guy, Twitter’s resident men’s fashion expert, who gave the former Arkansas governor props in July for his French cuffs and well-cut suits. Despite his sartorial supremacy, Hutchinson’s presidential campaign rarely broke 1% in polls of Republican voters throughout the summer and fall. Everybody seems to like that other guy with the long neckties and the orange dye job.

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Max Brantley

Best mentor

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Longtime Arkansas Times Editor Max Brantley expertly tagged out of the daily journalism game right before the start of the 2023 Arkansas legislative session, a move we both resented and admired. While Brantley left us to suffer through it without him, he’s as generous as ever with advice, tips, contacts and the wisdom that comes with five decades of serving up Arkansas news.

Best Political Prodigy

Jaylen Smith was 18 when he took office as the mayor of the Crittenden County town of Earle in January, making him one of the youngest elected officials in the country. “Why should I have to go somewhere else to be great when I can be great right here in Earle, Arkansas?” Smith said in an interview with The New York Times.

Worst Political Prodigy

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Being an underage public servant has its downsides, though. In August, Hot Springs police arrested Garland County Justice of the Peace Dayton Myers, 20, after he used someone else’s Mississippi-issued ID to get into Oaklawn. Myers, a Republican, had multiple alcoholic drinks and gambled on a total of nine slot machines at the casino; police say he used an invalid Texas license to obtain a players card in 2020. No word on how much Myers won or lost during his night on the town.

Worst inhumanity

Larry Price Jr. starved to death in a Sebastian County Jail cell in 2021, his body found in a pool of his own urine. His crime: pointing finger guns at Fort Smith police and not having the $100 to get free on bond. Price, a developmentally disabled and mentally ill man who stood 6-foot-2, had been locked in solitary confinement for more than a year when he died, his weight dropping from 185 pounds to 90. The case received national media attention in January, when his family filed a lawsuit against the county and a for-profit inmate medical service provider. A trial is scheduled for May 2024.

Best snub

Little Rock Central High students poured out of class on a March afternoon to protest their school’s least-beloved alumna. Gov. Sanders’ own education at Central seems to have served her well. But her signature bill, Arkansas LEARNS, belittles and degrades public education and gives taxpayer money to families for private schools instead.   

Worst D.C.-style politics

It’s an old swamp trick the new governor and her traveling Trumpettes brought to town this spring: Slingshot a 144-page omnibus bill through the Arkansas legislature as quickly as possible, and no one has time to ask questions. Even some of the Republican supermajority balked at the shiftiness behind Arkansas LEARNS, noting they weren’t able to read the whole thing before votes were called. Of course, that was the point. LEARNS is a mishmash of mistakes and malign intent, glossed up with teacher raises. Keep the raises, repeal the rest.

Best opportunity for future vandalism

Nevermind that the majority of Americans — even the majority of Arkansans, by some polls — support abortion access. The blowhards in the state legislature not only banned abortion in all instances except to save a mother’s life; they also voted to enshrine their bullying in marble and bronze. A “monument to the unborn” will be going up on the Capitol grounds, courtesy of a bill passed this spring. A giant vagina? A shiny fetus reminiscent of the Chicago Bean? Whatever design is chosen, let’s hope a Dodge Dart makes quick work of it.

Worst backroom deal

Almost two years of secret negotiations by University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt to buy the giant, online, for-profit University of Phoenix ended in failure and acrimony this spring when the UA System’s board narrowly rejected Bobbitt’s plans. Phoenix is now seeking a buyer in Idaho. 

Worst family loyalty

Just over a year ago, Barry Walker pleaded guilty to raping 31 children in Pike and Clark counties since 1997. In January, reporters discovered that Walker’s niece, Jana Bradford, a prosecuting attorney in southwest Arkansas, had attempted to have Walker removed from the sex offender registry after an earlier conviction. She also worked to protect Walker from legal consequences for years, even while employed as a deputy prosecutor. Bradford and other family members who circled the wagons to protect Walker over the years were subsequently added as defendants in a civil suit filed against Walker by many of his victims. 

Best display of musical mediocrity

Matt Farley, or “The Guy Who Sings Songs About Cities & Towns” as he’s known on Spotify, has released a lengthy album about every state in the country, but we’re sure each and every track on his 50-song tribute to Arkansas is straight from the heart. The opening line of Farley’s “Beebe! Oh Yeah!” (rhymes with “dweeb,” in Farley’s world) is something the Arkansas Times editorial team is still shouting at random.

YouTube
Best warlord

Rumors that arms dealer Neil Ravi Mehta escaped an FBI raid on his 6,000-square-foot Fort Smith home by fleeing through an underground tunnel proved false; rumors that he owned an orange Lamborghini with “WARLORD” vanity plates were real. Mehta was apprehended in Texas in February after a weeklong manhunt and eventually accepted a plea deal related to illegal explosives found in the FBI raid. He could face up to 18 years in prison.

Worst grasp of Arkansas topography 

The Rockies, the Ozarks — six of one, half a dozen of the other, right? Maybe the Arkansas Department of Transformation and Shared Services thought no one would notice when they shared a stock photo of colorful Colorado in May, encouraging hikers to come enjoy Arkansas’s beautiful “trials” [sic]. Blue Hog Report blogger Matt Campbell called bullshit on the gaffe, unearthing repeat instances of Arkansas-centric captions atop photos of rugged peaks and aspen trees on the agency’s social media accounts.

Little Rock Zoo
Best quiet revenge

A Valentine’s Day fundraiser at the Little Rock Zoo encouraged the heartbroken to pay $5 to name a cockroach after an ex, after which the roaches would be fed to Mayhem, a northern ground hornbill. Names included “Greasy Greg,” “Crazy Lisa,” “Stumpy and Pathetic Bob,” and, the lowest of low, “Mat with one ‘T’” Also in the mix: “Sarah S.” and “Donald T.” Wink, wink.

Brian Chilson
Worst event planning

On Sept. 2, War Memorial Stadium hosted one of its most memorable Razorbacks games in recent years, though not in a good way. Fans not calling the Hogs in the 90-degree summer weather were likely searching for water and not finding any; on-site medical personnel saw more than 200 patients. The state, which is in charge of War Memorial, brushed off the problems and widespread complaints afterwards as the inevitable hiccups of any large-scale event.

Best/worst use of a very good girl

In February, Special Agent K9 Lucy, the only dog in Arkansas trained to sniff out concealed electronic devices, joined the staff at the state attorney general’s office. Several weeks later, the yellow lab’s detective work helped lead to the arrest of North Little Rock resident Robert Vincent Lahn, who eventually pleaded guilty to 30 counts of possession of child pornography. Apparently, there’s a coating used on most commercial hard drives, laptops and other digital doodads that Lucy’s perceptive nose can detect.

Worst Dickensian throwback

The governor signed a bill in March to eliminate the state’s work permit requirement for 14- and 15-year-olds. Legislators bloviated at length about the need to instill a work ethic in the kids these days. But it’s hard not to suspect the rollback of child labor laws is more about giving companies easier access to a cheap, pliable workforce. Only a few weeks before the law passed, two Arkansas meatpacking plants were busted for using contractors that hired teenage kids to clean bloody floors and dangerous equipment with caustic chemicals. 

Best political promise, hands down

Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Knoxville) sponsored a resolution this spring that would “encourage the United States to become a member of the Commonwealth of Nations,” an association of countries formerly ruled by the British Empire. We’re not sure why this matters to Pilkington or even what the commonwealth is, exactly, but some of his fellow Republicans feared sinister New World Order-esque intent. When Pilkington brought his measure before a Senate committee, he was asked if it might allow other nations to strongarm the U.S. into enacting gun control. “I will tell you this: If we were to join the Commonwealth of Nations and there was even a chance that that would happen, I would cut my right hand off,” Pilkington vowed. His resolution did not pass.

Dixie Pig BBQ
Best wink

In August, a white BMW Sedan crashed through the front wall of Dixie Pig, a Blytheville BBQ joint celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Fortunately, the restaurant was closed at the time, and only minor injuries were reported. Forever resilient, Dixie Pig wasn’t down long: The hole was patched within two days and the restaurant was back open in a limited capacity.

Brian Chilson
Best remixable mix-up

Speaking on the Senate floor in favor of the bill to loosen child labor restrictions, Sen. Terry Rice (R-Waldron) sought to alleviate critics’ concerns. “If we need to twerk it, we’ll twerk it,” he declared. His cadence made for perfect sample material; someone call Megan Thee Stallion, stat. Later, Rice argued he was using the homophone “twirk,” which he said means to “twist and pull.” OK, boomer. 

KLRT FOX 16
Best sharpshooter

A Cleveland County jury found Timothy Sled guilty in March on two felony charges for shooting a hole through the crotch of the Johnny Cash silhouette on the Kingsland water tower in 2022,  making it appear as if the Man in Black was urinating on his hometown. 

Best bats

In February, after repeated bat sightings at North Little Rock High School, the entire campus was cleared for three days to rid the building of the flying mammals. About 100 bats were captured and released in Burns Park, administrators said.

Worst bats

Bats shutting down school for three days? Kind of cool. A rabid bat at the Little Rock Zoo? Not cool at all. In September, the zoo euthanized a bat with rabies that was found on its grounds, but assured zoogoers that no bites or scratches of animals or humans had been reported. In October, the health department announced at least two individuals were “exposed” to a bat at the Arkansas State Fair behaving “unusually” in the horse barn. 

Worst fair weather friends

Another thing about Asa: We learned that Arkansas Republicans kinda hate him. That may be an exaggeration, but the hostility in the party toward a two-term governor who patiently led the Arkansas GOP during its long years in the wilderness is … well, surprising. In June, for example, when unhappy state employees confronted legislators about their lack of a cost-of-living adjustment in 2023, GOP lawmakers pointed fingers at Hutchinson’s policies as the root of the problem. Asa’s middle-of-the-road pandemic policies as governor did him no favors on the right, nor did his humane gestures toward transgender kids — let alone his ongoing criticism of Donald Trump.

Best benchslap

Among the nuttiest new laws of 2023 was Jonesboro state Sen. Dan Sullivan’s plan to make it a crime for librarians and booksellers to make “harmful” materials available to minors. In July, though, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks of Fayetteville blocked Sullivan’s censorship law before it had a chance to take effect. Brooks opened his order with a quote from Ray Bradbury’s classic “Fahrenheit 451:” “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

Best win for rationality

In June, U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr. struck down Arkansas’s law banning trans minors from receiving gender-affirming health care. Arkansas was the first state in the nation to pass such a ban — though a number of other red states have followed suit — so Moody’s permanent injunction was a historic moment. He said the overwhelming weight of scientific authority supported gender-affirming care and held that the state had failed to prove that its interests were “compelling, genuine, or even rational.”

Worst mulligan

Unfortunately, the outlook for trans rights beyond James Moody Jr.’s court isn’t so bright. Attorney General Tim Griffin, who has made a career of being on the wrong side of history, appealed the decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals this summer. Griffin previously lost a related appeal before a three-judge panel of the appellate court in 2022, so this time he asked the entire 11-judge court to weigh in. In October, the 8th Circuit agreed — a bad sign for the plaintiffs, a good sign for Griffin and others eager to trample the rights of transgender kids for the sake of politics.

Best addition to the White House Christmas card list

In June, Hunter Biden reached a child support settlement with Lunden Roberts, an Independence County woman. And in August, President Joe Biden (finally) publicly recognized Hunter’s then-4-year-old daughter, Navy Joan Roberts, as his grandchild.

Best keyboard warrior

Over the years, lawyer Matt Campbell’s Blue Hog Report blog has helped bring down a circuit judge, a lieutenant governor and a Little Rock superintendent, among others, but nothing’s provoked a reaction like his recent digging into Gov. Sanders’ spending habits. The governor called her September special session largely because she found Campbell’s FOIA requests so offensive that she was willing to burn down the state’s open records law to block them. A Sanders spokeswoman dismissed Campbell as a “desperate radical left keyboard warrior.” Sounds kind of awesome, actually.

Worst way to spend $19K

Matt Campbell’s digging uncovered a mysterious $19,029.25 purchase, made by the governor’s office in May, for what turned out to be a lectern. The seller was D.C.-based political consultant Virginia Beckett, who is not in the furniture peddling business but is a friend and associate of the governor’s. The lectern itself remains as elusive, and possibly as nonexistent, as a certain species of East Arkansas woodpecker. Neither Sanders nor any other state official has ever used it at a public event. The full story behind “podiumgate” has yet to emerge, but thanks to a legislative audit (and a state government whistleblower), there’s a chance it may.

Best new hire

As for Campbell, we’re proud to say he joined the Arkansas Times staff in November. Welcome aboard, Matt.

Brian Chilson
Best unlikely statistic

The March 31 tornado that tore through Pulaski County upended lives and destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings. But, despite the catastrophic destruction, only one storm-related death was reported in the area that day. Hospitals initially braced for a wave of trauma patients, but even serious injuries turned out to be scant. (Not everywhere was so lucky: In Wynne, a tornado bred by the same storm system killed four people later that day.)

Brian Chilson
Best revolt

Gov. Sarah Sanders’ September special session was a spectacular fiasco. Many GOP lawmakers who were happy to pass more tax cuts for the rich balked at Sanders’ push to gut the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Angry citizens on both the right and the left converged on the Capitol, and enough skeptical Republican lawmakers joined with Democrats to force her and her legislative allies — such as Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester — to retreat. Sanders won passage of a new FOIA exemption that allows her to conceal certain records in the name of security, but the bulk of the FOIA remains intact.

Caitrin Assaf
Best weatherman

In August, meteorologist Todd Yakoubian announced he was leaving KATV, Channel 7 News after 18 years at the station. The departure of Little Rock’s most trusted interpreter of the weather was a frightening prospect for many in a city still reeling from an EF3 tornado, but hints soon dropped that Yakoubian may not be going far. In October, KARK-TV, Channel 4 produced an SNL-like parody of a pharmaceutical ad offering a remedy for “meteorologistosis — a rare form of anxiety after your favorite weatherman is no longer on TV,” tweeted out by Yakoubian and several members of the news station. The ad also promised a free “yak” doll for the first 44 callers.

Worst grasp of Arkansas geography

Melancholy pop icon Lana Del Rey thrilled Central Arkansas fans in July with a surprise Instagram post announcing tickets were going on sale for a “show in Little Rock.” Two days later, she crushed those dreams with a post clarifying the show would be “near” Little Rock. More specifically, “in ROGERS near Little Rock.” Really? 

Worst lake trip

A kayaker on Beaver Lake found the body of 49-year-old John Forsyth one afternoon in June. A recently divorced father of eight, Forsyth was an emergency room doctor from Cassville, Missouri, a small town just across the Arkansas state line. He and his brother were also the founders of a cryptocurrency company that had allegedly made Forsyth a millionaire. About a week before his body was found, Forsyth was reported missing, and his belongings — two cell phones, wallet, passport, driver’s license, work briefcase and car keys — were found left behind in his unlocked car at a Cassville city park.

Worst white-washing

The Friday before the first day of school in August, the state sent word to teachers that it would not give credit for a pilot Advanced Placement African American Studies course, followed by a string of nonsensical excuses for the last-minute change. The real reason seemed obvious: Gov. Ron DeSantis pulled the same culture war stunt in Florida. Gov. Sanders and her education secretary, Florida import Jacob Oliva, seemed unbothered by charges of racism from students, Black legislators and even from members of the Little Rock Nine themselves.

Best keeping their cool

To their eternal credit, educators in the six Arkansas high schools that planned to offer AP African American Studies in 2023-24 stayed focused on students, not politics, and figured out ways to keep the class on offer this year.

Brian Chilson
Worst do-over

After voters soundly rejected a city sales tax proposal in 2021, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. tried again in 2023. But his last-minute sprint to put a 1-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot ran into resistance with the Little Rock City Board, and Scott ultimately backed off. That’s 0-2 so far, mayor; better luck next year.

Worst Dada art piece

Where were you the first time you saw “Real Women of Politics,” Sanders’ minute-long web ad riffing on Bud Light commercials of years past to sneer at transgender people and hawk a new line of beer koozies? There are only two genders, the spot proclaims, and real woman Sarah Sanders embodies the feminine ideal. We won’t try to describe it further for the uninitiated; such a transcendent level of cringe must be seen and heard to be believed.

Worst frozen dinners

In June, 2,717 pounds of Marie Callender’s frozen beef shepherd’s pie meals produced at a Conagra Brands manufacturing facility in Russellville were recalled over possible contamination with “clear, flexible plastic.” Not to be outdone, Tyson Foods recalled 29,819 pounds of dinosaur-shaped “Fun Nuggets” from its Berryville plant in November after consumers reported finding small metal pieces in the chicken. One “minor oral injury” was reported.

Best grassroots

After Arkansas LEARNS steamrolled its way through the legislature, an ad hoc volunteer group called CAPES mounted a longshot campaign to repeal the bill at the ballot box. Most professional politics watchers considered the effort all but impossible, seeing as it required collecting 54,422 voter signatures within just a couple months. But on July 31, CAPES turned in 53,444 signatures, falling short of the mark by just under a thousand.

Worst blow job

A West Little Rock house that had been destroyed in the March tornado and was in the process of being rebuilt was leveled for a second time in September when an uncommonly powerful thunderstorm sent “microburst” winds of up to 80 miles per hour through parts of Little Rock.

Mermaid Sparkle via Facebook
Best mermaid

Little Rock-based performer Brittany Sparkles made a big splash on the Netflix series “MerPeople” in May. Sparkles describes herself as the state’s first professional mermaid entertainer. “I can’t really grow much as a mermaid in Arkansas ’cause I feel like I’m trapped in this box,” she said in the docuseries. “I’m a landlocked mermaid.”

Best bug

You can get pretty much anything at Walmart these days: milk, bread, toys, furniture and, it turns out, Jurassic-era insects thought to have disappeared from large swaths of North America. Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s insect identification lab, inadvertently made the discovery in 2012 when he was a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. On his way to grab a gallon of milk from a Fayetteville Walmart, Skvarla found an interesting insect on the side of the big box store and proceeded to do his shopping while grasping it between his fingers. He brought it home, labeled it as an “antlion” and forgot about it for a decade until -— plot twist! — the specimen raised eyebrows when he and his students gazed at it during a Zoom class on biodiversity in 2020. It was officially identified this year as a giant lacewing.

Worst tree trimming

Dennis Rainey, a Christian evangelical author who lives by Lake Maumelle, hired workers to cut the tops off trees so he would have a better lakeside view. But trees in the lake’s watershed are the domain of Central Arkansas Water, and the utility said Rainey did not have permission to do any chopping, lopping or trimming. Rainey faced trial this summer on a felony charge of criminal mischief, but a jury found him guilty of a lesser charge and fined him $1,000.

Worst pre-fab controversy

In June, Gov. Sanders traded barbs with the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State over a giant sidewalk chalk cross that the governors’ children supposedly drew in front of the Governor’s Mansion. Skeptics wondered whether the drawing’s precisely rendered lines were really the sole work of Sanders’ young children or if they were given an assist by an adult with a love of Jesus and a strong sense of red-state public relations. If the episode was a bit of staged culture war theater, it unfurled just as planned: Liberals huffed, evangelicals rallied around Sanders, and the governor got to fire off a self-righteous letter about her faith. “We won’t let you power-wash our kids’ chalk drawings off our front steps. We won’t let you tear down Christmas decorations and stomp our traditions into the dirt,” she declared.

Worst job application form

In April, observers noted the online form for Arkansans to apply for a state board or commission included the following query: “What is an accomplishment of the Governor’s that you admire the most?” Applicants got 500 words to expound upon the governor’s virtues (twice the word count allotted for the next item: “What book have you read that would best define your life, and why?”) A spokeswoman for Sanders later said the question was mistakenly included and meant only for potential summer interns, which makes sense. Who among us hasn’t accidentally required job applicants to write 500-word essays on how great we are?

Worst aroma-therapy

In March, North Little Rock’s seventh- and eighth-grade campus was evacuated after students complained of nausea, dizziness and a strong odor. Upon investigation, the culprit turned out to be a scented wall plug-in.

Worst photo op

In July, Gov. Sanders traveled to the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, where she had sent 80 Arkansas National Guard troops to assist with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s massive (and legally dubious) effort to deter migrants from entering the U.S. Her mission: Pose for Fox News cameras in front of the Rio Grande while lambasting “Biden’s border crisis” and praising Republican governors like herself for “stepping up.” The Arkansas guard contingent returned home a few days after Sanders’ swooped by; the deployment cost the state $1.3 million.

Best awestruck wonder

Jonesboro city employee Terry Harris was cutting grass in a city cemetery in October when he spotted an albino squirrel, an experience which affected him tremendously. “We see deer, we see groundhogs, we see rabbits, but to see something like this, after 38 years of my life … It’s astonishing, man,” Harris told a local TV station crew dispatched to film the rare animal. “It was one of the most beautiful things you have ever seen in your life.”

Rebecca Williams
Best muscles

After selling hundreds of 2023 calendars featuring Cabot’s buff, scantily clad first responders to customers across the nation, the Cabot Firefighter Calendar Association is back with another sultry offering. The 2024 version is filled with sexy firefighters and puppy dogs from Cabot Animal Support Services, their chosen charity for 2024.

Little Rock Zoo
Best zoo arrival

Who moves slow, has two toes on each foot and is named after a nut? It’s Almond, the 2-year-old sloth who joined the Little Rock Zoo this summer. 

Worst solution in search of a problem

In November, Gov. Sanders’ attempts at deflection reached new heights when she banned state agencies from using a list of words including “womyn,” “womxn,” “birth-giver,” “pregnant person,” and — oh, for fuck’s sake. You know what? We’re done here. Look: You know the governor sucks. We know the governor sucks. She did more hateful and obnoxious things in 2023 than we can catalog, she’s going to keep doing them in 2024, and we’re going to keep impotently shouting at her. Let’s just move on and enjoy some pictures of firefighters and sloths. OK? OK. 

Worst carnival prize

Move over, goldfish and oversized stuffed animals. A county fair worker in Washington County offered “iguanas” as prizes to visitors this summer who could land balls into glass jars. The reptiles in question, though, turned out to be baby savannah monitor lizards — carnivorous creatures that can grow up to 4 feet long.

Worst therapy sessions

Dr. Bryan Hyatt began 2023 as chair of the Arkansas State Medical Board. By October, he’d been removed from the board, suspended from the state Medicaid program and arrested on charges of fraudulently billing insurers for care that was never provided. He’s also being sued by dozens of former patients who claim they were held against their will for days on end at the Springdale hospital where Hyatt ran a behavioral health unit. The doctor was “running a scheme … to bill their insurance as long as possible before kicking them out the door,” said Aaron Cash, an attorney for the plaintiffs. 

Arkansas Department of Transportation
Best high-whey havoc

When a big rig toppled on Interstate 30 near Prescott in August and spilled a sea of #10 cans of nacho cheese across the highway, the outlook was definitely not gouda, though nobody was seriously parmed in the incident. Brie-maining calm and collected, road crews had the mess cleared by early evening and the Department of Transportation’s Twitter account breezily quipped, “Taco Tuesday, anyone?”

Frisco Police Department
Worst typo

A Little Rock family on their way to a youth basketball tournament in July was pulled over by Dallas-area cops who mistook their Dodge Charger for a stolen vehicle. After forcing the terrified family out of the car at gunpoint on the shoulder of a busy highway, the officers realized they’d run the license plates as Arizona, not Arkansas.

Brian Chilson
Best delayed gratification

After multiple delays, the new Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts finally opened in April following a four-year, $160 million renovation and expansion of the former Arkansas Arts Center. Whether you’re there to wander through a first-rate exhibition, attend an Arkansas Cinema Society screening, or just admire the undulating ceiling in the massive atrium, AMFA is the world-class museum Little Rock has been missing.

Best eye for an eye

Aaron James, an electrical lineman from Hot Springs Village who suffered a devastating injury in 2021 when his face came in contact with a live 7,200-volt line, became the recipient of the world’s first whole eye transplant in May. 

Best fanny pack

The Baxter County Sheriff’s Office arrested Charles Matthew Franks, a Mountain Home-area man who also goes by Sir Charles Matthew Francke, after a chase in November. Sir Francke fled on a 2006 Suzuki motorcycle (which reached speeds of 90 mph and “briefly went airborne,” officers said) before he was apprehended, along with a fanny pack containing meth, oxycodone, syringes, psychedelic mushrooms and $12,990 in cash.

Worst tunnel

In August, state legislators gave themselves an early Christmas present: A $3.87 million underground “secured walkway” between the state Capitol and a government building about 60 yards away. That means Arkansas taxpayers will pay something on the order of $20,000 per foot for the construction, expected to be completed in early 2025.

Best new industry (maybe?)

South Arkansas’s oil boom is long past; could lithium be the future? ExxonMobil announced in November it was beginning to drill lithium-rich brine from a 10,000-foot-deep well near Magnolia, presumably the first of many. The hard-to-find metal is an essential component in batteries for electric vehicles and other green energy technologies, and Exxon is betting big on a new lithium extraction method that may (or may not?) be less environmentally harmful than traditional mining techniques. In any case, it’s huge news for South Arkansas: The Wall Street Journal reported in July that Exxon had acquired 100,000 acres in Columbia County alone. 

Best long-term planning

Three feet of muddy sediment accrued on the bottom of Lake Conway in the 75 years since its creation, and the ecosystem is suffering. In June, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission shared plans to drain the lake, much to the unhappiness of some local anglers. The big bake, which will take place over five years, will allow the lakebed to dehydrate in the sun, the sediment to compact and decades of lost depth to be restored, setting the stage for a rejuvenated food chain.

Worst schism

You know that part deep in the Gospel of Matthew that gets all Revelations-y for a minute, declaring that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, and the earth shook, and the rocks were split”? The breakup of the Methodist church was kinda like that, but about The Gays. Recognizing same-sex marriage and ordaining LGBTQ clergy was a bridge too far for the more conservative reaches of United Methodism, and in May the church rubberstamped its long-simmering decision to fracture in two. Over 6,000 congregations disaffiliated from the denomination nationwide, including 67 in Arkansas.