Arkansas Governor's Mansion: a house divided 

The Mansion Commission is neutered; the governor takes over.

click to enlarge mansion2.jpg

The Arkansas Governor's Mansion, serving both as private residence and "The People's House," has always held out the potential for conflict. "Better is a dry morsel and quietness within it / Than a house full of feasting with strife" goes the proverb, but a public house must have both feasting and quiet. Strife has arisen over matters of taste, expense and the Governor's Mansion Commission's say so over gifts, grants and donations.

Until the Hutchinson administration, the conflicts were worked out, though not always amicably. For example, in 1997 Gov. Mike Huckabee, apparently chafing at objections by the commission to decorating changes made to the Georgian style of the public areas, got a bill passed to increase the membership of the commission from five to eight, thus allowing him to appoint three friendly members. At the time, state Rep. Myra Jones (D-Little Rock) rose to oppose the bill, saying the commission was nonpartisan and had been for 20 years.

But Gov. Hutchinson has gone a step further, successfully pushing through legislation in the recent special session of the legislature that strips the commission of its former duties, including that of approving gifts, grants and donations. Now, the governor has final say; he need not run anything by the commission.

The change was necessary because the commission was falling down on the job, Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said. It had not promulgated rules and regulations for review by the governor, as Hutchinson had ordered at the first of the year. It had violated the state Freedom of Information Act, and it had let the mansion fall into disrepair. There was a rodent infestation; a rat died under the governor's office in the mansion.

Minutes of commission meetings since the Hutchinsons took possession of the mansion reveal points of contention over expenditures, particularly the installation of a sculpture, and Grand Hall revenues. Mansion Administrator Don Bingham has not provided the Arkansas Times with an accounting of expenditures and gifts to the mansion, but the Mansion Restoration Project has received at least $1.1 million grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council for improvements. The application for the grant states said that improvememts to the private areas of the mansion had been put on the "back burner" so that resources could be focused on public areas. "It is well past time to turn our focus to the comforts of the First Family."

At first lady Susan Hutchinson's first Mansion Commission meeting, in January 2015, Mansion Association President Jan Zimmerman asked that the commission change its policy on pre-approval to let Hutchinson make purchases for "minor improvements to the mansion, including various repainting, replacing wallpaper and lighting in the private dining room and other improvements," and the commission agreed. The Association is a nonprofit that raises money for the mansion.

In succeeding months, minutes show, among the upgrades Susan Hutchinson commissioned were hand-painted silk wallpaper for the public areas, a $1,000 toilet for the public powder room, mirrors, a table and a secretary for the public rooms. The commission approved sconces for the dining room. The mansion, especially the Grand Hall, was lavishly decorated for Christmas after the first lady made a buying trip to Dallas, using a $12,000 credit at Legacy Antiques and purchases from another showroom. Tipton & Hurst decorated the formal living and dining rooms and the library "at a substantial discount," Bingham reported to the commission. Tipton & Hurst is owned by Howard and state Department of Arkansas Heritage Director Stacy Hurst, an ex-officio member of the commission at the time. Under the new legislation, she will be a voting member, should there be anything to vote on.

Besides Association purchases for the house, several gifts were made to the mansion or the Mansion Association, including a collection of Waterford crystal; mirrors for the Grand Hall, an $18,000 gift from the Arkansas Automobile Dealers' Wives Club; and a donation of lawn mowers worth $80,000 from Bad Boy Mowers in Batesville, a company that later received state incentives for expansion in the form of cash rebates and tax cuts.

Judging by the minutes, the bloom was definitely off the rose by September 2015, when Mrs. Hutchison complained that several items — including tables — had been purchased without her approval and told the Commission that she had returned them to Legacy Antiques in Dallas. (Hence the credit.)

click to enlarge RAIN OF FAITH - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson

Also at the September 2015 meeting, the first lady announced that she wanted to suspend a sculpture donated to the mansion over a water feature "to help spotlight this sculpture in the gardens." The shiny sculpture, "Rain of Faith" by former Arkansas artist Ryan Schmidt, had been placed in an area on the grounds where children played for their enjoyment, former first lady Ginger Beebe said.

The sculpture should have had a pedestal of some sort; "Rain of Faith" was so shiny that on one sunny day it set fire to the mulch on which it rested.

Mrs. Hutchinson told the commission she knew the changes would be expensive, but added that the sculpture was valued by the artist at $180,000. She said she hoped to raise funds for the project "through special sponsorships."

There was discord over the idea. Commissioner Kaki Hockersmith "expressed her concern to the First Lady on the idea of spending a large amount of money on a very permanent piece that will have a huge impact on the gardens. There were several minutes of exchange between Mrs. Hockersmith and First Lady," the minutes read.

The friction over the sculpture likely derives from the fact that "Rain of Fire" was purchased for $3,500 in a silent auction at the 2009 Tabriz fundraiser of the Arkansas Arts Center, according to Arts Center records. The artist had valued the piece at $40,000. On his website, Schmidt calls the sculpture an "attraction." "Steel says classy," the site says. "Give the neighbors something to talk about. ... Fascinate your guests and enrich your place with eSchmidt Artistic Attractions."

In 2010, another casting of the sculpture was offered for $25,000 while it was on loan to a senior center in Colorado. Schmidt's lawyer, former Municipal Judge Bill Watt, told the commission that he has asked the artist to hire appraisers to "assess the true value of 'Rain of Faith'."

As it turns out, the NCRC grant will pay for the installation: $128,133 for the sculpture base and support; $3,000 for the foundation, crane and installation; and $60,000 for landscape improvements.

The mansion requested $1,489,442 from NCRC; the award was for $1,142,560. Among the other improvements to be made from the grant are upgrades to the family kitchen ($22,500), the laundry room ($11,500); upgrades to the family room, including new millwork for the wetbar, carpet, paint and electrical work ($37,924); upgrades to the basement bathroom, including finishes, accessories, electrical and plumbing ($11,900); remodeling of the library ($24,088); remodeling of the governor's office ($62,620); remodeling of the guest house ($57,570 — the first lady said it was in such bad shape that she would rather guests stay in a hotel); remodeling of the Grand Hall, including a glass conservatory, new chandeliers and sconces ($230,730); and repairs to and remodel of the carriage house ($97,500).

The minutes from the September 2015 meeting also provide the first inkling that the Mansion Commission was in hot water with the Hutchinson administration. Andrew "Vu" Richie from the governor's office and Nga Mahfouz from the attorney general's office attended to inform the commission that, like all commissions, it needed to adopt rules and regulations and file them with the secretary of state's office. Mahfouz said the policies adopted by the commission did not take the place of rules.

A special meeting of the commission followed, at which Susan Hutchinson discounted the sculpture committee and art committee policies, saying they could not be drawn up without rules and regulations in place, and complained that people who were not on the commission itself had participated in developing the policies. She was apparently referring to members named to the sculpture committee as advisers, including Arkansas Arts Center Director Todd Herman, then-Director of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Don Bacigalupi and City Director Dean Kumpuris.

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."

Another of the Hutchinsons' complaints about the commission was that it kept no minutes in 2015, spokesman Davis told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette a week ago Tuesday, and Bingham told the Times the same the next morning. Hours later, the 2015 minutes appeared and Bingham forwarded them to the Times.

Davis also complained that the commission took an illegal vote by email, which is a violation of the state Freedom of Information Act (the commission later took the vote in public). Several of the people at the May 2015 meeting where the commission approved a motion to vote by email "for immediate needs" should have known it was a violation of state law — including Bingham and Hurst, who is also a member of the Airport Commision. (However, as late as January 2016, chairman Mayton asked Mahfouz "if the public should be made aware of all Commission meetings including committee meetings." She said yes.)

Asked what other commissions have not promulgated rules, Davis emailed that he did not know.

"We don't keep up with that information," Davis said. "We only review the rules and regulations as they are promulgated. It is my understanding that the lack of rules and regulations promulgated by the Commission came to light when a disagreement arose among commissioners. When they went to check their rules for guidance they discovered none had ever been promulgated."

In an interview, Davis again decried the condition of the mansion, saying a beam had fallen through a ceiling. Yet, according to commission minutes, the Mansion Association believed the first lady and mansion administrator were in charge of inspections.

Davis also said Gov. Hutchinson has asked that a careful inventory be kept of mansion items. He said he did not think removing the commission's authority would adversely affect the mansion, and advised that the public take a wait-and-see-approach.

Perhaps the careful inventory will guard against the situation that occurred at the end of the Huckabee administration. It fell to the commission to retrieve certain items, including a painting, that Gov. Mike Huckabee and his wife, Janet, had taken with them when they left.


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