Personnel flaps keep arising at the state Heritage Department under the leadership of Stacy Hurst. The relevant question is where personality conflict ends and harm to the public interest begins, if it begins at all.
There is a general narrative we probably can establish by near-consensus, emphasizing “near.”
Hurst has been imperious, as if on a micromanaging mission to streamline an agency she has presumed to be fat and too accustomed to inertia from the more pleasantly delegating previous director.
But what could be wrong — exactly — with a Heritage Department director sitting in on meetings of a historic preservation grant committee to see where a couple of million dollars are going — other than that members of the committee don’t think selling flowers and gifts and getting beat for the state Legislature provide credentials to supervise their preservationist decisions?
Veteran professional staff members have resented and resisted this failed Republican office-seeker with a resume as a florist, businesswoman and Little Rock city director rather than historian or preservationist.
To be fair: They’ve had other directors who lacked credentials. So it must be the way Hurst goes about the job that’s different.
She has been intent on centralizing authority and cutting costs, either to please the governor or advance her own political standing, or both — or, conceivably, to serve taxpayer interest. There’s always that possibility.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson is determined to “transform” government, as he calls it, by finding efficiencies. Hurst, who is close to him, seems anxious to do her part or more.
The director of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program is long gone. Freshly departed is Dr. Lisa Speer, since 2013 the state archivist, formerly called the state historian. The office was only recently moved from Parks and Tourism to Heritage oversight in what some see as a perfect example of Hurst’s empire-building.
The governor went to the mat to pass the bill making the move.
Speer told me last week that nagging micromanaging by the central office had distracted from the mission of keeping and treasuring the state’s history. She said the job had become intolerable.
Speer told this story: She prepared promotional materials for several events to be sponsored by the Black History Commission, also under the Heritage aegis. The materials listed the Black History Commission as the sponsor. Hurst told her there was a new policy to emphasize the Heritage Department rather than mere elements, and Hurst removed the Black History Commission’s name from the promotional materials. Hurst met with a Black History commission official to explain, and everything seemed all right. But then the Black History Commission learned that this would not be a one-time edit, but a permanent policy — that its identity might be absorbed, essentially, by the Heritage Department. Hurst blamed Speer for fomenting the dissension, but Speer says she was innocent and had been out of state for Christmas vacation when the trouble arose. But Hurst put Speer on 90-day probation during which she should decide whether to stay and straighten up. “It didn’t take me 90 days,” said Speer, who quit with a pointedly worded letter at the end of business last Tuesday.
Much of the state’s historian community has risen in alarm and in Speer’s defense, especially now that Hurst has advertised for her replacement by saying a business background might be acceptable in lieu of a doctoral degree in the archival field.
A new law requires the doctorate but permits the Heritage director to waive that requirement.
Hurst says she’d waive it only with careful attention to the archival mission. Her critics scoff that the only thing she ever gave careful attention to was herself.
So, we face a multiple-choice question. This situation is either:
A. A personality conflict and tiresome workplace drama stemming from resentment of change.
B. A political injustice to a professional state archivist and serious threat to the state’s proper attention to its heritage and history.
C. A matter that bears close public monitoring, both of the agency’s administration and its performance of the mission to preserve and honor the state’s heritage and history.
D. All the above.
Don’t you know by now that the right answer will almost always be all the above?
But the most correct of the right answers is “C,” the one about keeping an eye on the agency’s performance in its obligation to our history.
Personal style is a matter of taste. Careful service to our history is an imperative.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.