Friday, May 27, 2016

The truth emerges on the Governor's Mansion takeover

Posted By on Fri, May 27, 2016 at 7:22 AM

MANSION MOVES: First Lady Susan Hutchinson's disagreements with Mansion Commission preceded legislation to effectively abolish the Commission as overseer of the residence.
  • MANSION MOVES: First Lady Susan Hutchinson's disagreements with Mansion Commission preceded legislation to effectively abolish the Commission as overseer of the residence.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today delved further into the Governor's Mansion takeover by Asa Hutchinson, an article that likely was inspired by the Arkansas Blog reporting that the D-G's previous account from a gubernatorial spokesman relied too heavily on incomplete and inaccurate administration statements about roots of the legislation.

Until today, the prevailing (risible) account was that the evisceration of the Governor's Mansion Commission was the idea of House Speaker Jeremy Gillam and Sen. Missy Irvin. Why, the governor just went along.  He had no idea why they wanted to do such a thing.

Leslie Peacock is working on a more in-depth account of this because it's about a sea change in operation and use of what is the people's house. But, as I had first reported, the D-G article also makes plain that control issues on the part of First Lady Susan Hutchinson led directly to legislation to end historic outside governance of the mansion. (Outside governance WAS a good thing even if the process could have been improved and tensions periodically arose, generally with deference accorded the occupants. Governors come and go, as do fashions. The house remains.)

The D-G reported a gubernatorial spokesman's statement about a lack of minutes of Mansion Commission meetings was incorrect, as I had written repeatedly. The Commission, with at least one exception, did generally observe the Freedom of Information Act (though nobody much cared to attend meetings), despite broad administration representations to the contrary. And, despite what might have been said earlier, an effort was underway to adopt rules for the Commission (a copy of them exists), but a representative of the governor, Heritage Department Director Stacy Hurst, held up consideration of them on one occasion because  she had not been notified of a subcommittee meeting. She was then an ex officio member of the Commission (though not the subcommittee) and is now a voting member of the Commission.

Also, as I had written, Susan Hutchinson was at odds with the Mansion Commission over, among others, a piece of shiny sculpture that she proposed to spend at least $150,000 to better display. Donated during the Beebe years, it put off enough reflected heat to set mulch on fire and had a worth of a fraction of the installation cost proposed. The Beebe administration had rejected a proposal to pay the maker to upgrade the display.

Yes the $1.5 million in tax money requested from an agency overseen by Hutchinson appointee Stacy Hurst included money to deal with some wiring and rodent issues. (I've had rats. But the D-Con didn't cost $1.5 million.) It also includes money to expand private space for the family in the basement and other areas, including a big screen TV (but wait, didn't Asa tell KATV HIS administration had spent no tax money on new stuff?). A key portion of the money, almost $300,000, expands the structure that connects the Mansion to the Great Hall added for social events. This is part of a move by First Lady Hutchinson to direct visitors to side entrances to the Great Hall rather than have them walk through the front door of the mansion and a foyer adjoining a living room and dining room to reach Great Hall events. This is among other changes in Mansion procedures that have reduced availability of the Great Hall to nonprofit groups. Seeing the carefully decorated living and dining rooms is a highlight of Mansion visits for many. Republicans of my acquaintance have expressed consternation at difficulty in getting on the schedule for use of the facility.

A reduction in rentals has the effect of reducing Mansion income. Yet to come is a look at the spending rate of the Hutchinsons and their drawdown of money raised by such events for their Mansion purchases, including from the nonprofit Mansion Association that the governor effectively controls. As yet, the Hutchinson administration has resisted a full accounting.  It has also refused to talk about or reveal details of how much was spent from what sources for renovation of the governor's office in the Capitol for his use

Available records indicate, by the way, that the Mansion has done business with Tipton and Hurst, the flower and decorative retailer co-owned by Heritage Director Stacy Hurst, a member of the Mansion Commission and a defender of the takeover legislation in earlier Democrat-Gazette accounts. 

The Hutchinson effort to throw this whole thing off on poor custodianship by the Beebe administration might — might — draw some subtle response from a group that quietly and diplomatically slid into the shadows after public service. Or not. Because Ginger Beebe graciously and tirelessly opened the Mansion and participated in events all over the community in a way that never aggrandized herself.

Other things have changed in the Hutchinson administration, too, including a more security conscious approach to daily living (perhaps also reflected in the desire to have fewer people walking through the part of the Mansion that includes private quarters.) The State Police as a matter of policy won't discuss its security details. But a friend's observation of a Hutchinson entourage visit to a local restaurant this week catches some of the flavor of the change.

The waiter told us some kind of Republican doings were going on in the back room. We were there early, so during our lunch we watched folks arrive.

First were various plainclothes cop-looking guys in suits and earphones à la Secret Service Then several small groups. Couple of groups including MORE Secret Service guys. 

Then as we were leaving Asa! himself in a big black Suburban with EVEN MORE Secret Service guys. Then Mrs. Asa! in a big black Mercury or something with, you guessed it.... Secret Service guy stood guard outside the door while the others did God knows what inside.

In my mind I contrasted this with the numerous times I saw Mike Beebe around town during our daily lunches. He never had more than one security guy with him, arrived in a normal car, usually had a couple of other guys and maybe gals who looked like overworked staffers. He’d sit with everyone else and the other guests hardly noticed him.

Many would undoubtedly say the security is only a necessary reflection of changing times and a world that grows ever more security conscious, from airport security checkpoints to armed guards at churches. And, yes, it is easier for  those not in the public eye to say they would do things differently. But some who are do. 

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