Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter, in a memo addressed to the mayor and city board this week, said his office plans to try to end a lawsuit over the historic Pike-Fletcher-Terry House with a pleading that would officially return the property to the plaintiffs.
The city attorney told them it was time to resolve the litigation. "This memorandum outlines my thinking to see if you agree with this approach," Carpenter wrote.
The lawsuit against the city of Little Rock, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and the museum's foundation was originally filed in October 2021 by six heirs of the two sisters who gave the East Seventh Street mansion to the city decades ago for the use and benefit of what was then known as the Arkansas Arts Center.
In court filings, the heirs argued the now-vacant mansion has been left to deteriorate and title to the property should revert back to them based on the breach of the conditions of the deed.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Cara Connors recently granted a motion to dismiss the museum's foundation from the case, leaving the city and the museum as defendants.
In his memo dated Tuesday, Carpenter referred to the recent decision to dismiss the foundation while suggesting that the museum was subsidiary to the city.
"The Foundation owns the collection displayed at the Museum. The [museum's] Trustees, appointed by the Board of Directors, oversee the City's interests in the property," Carpenter wrote. "Hence, the City is the only remaining defendant in this matter in reality."
"The litigation contends that the property should revert to the grantors because it has not been appropriately maintained," he added. "Effectively, the property has already reverted."
He wrote that the plaintiffs appear to be ready to file a motion for summary judgment. "It is appropriate for the City simply to enter a pleading that admits the reverter and returns the property to the [plaintiffs]," Carpenter wrote.
He referenced a $500,000 allocation from the city meant to fund repairs to the mansion.
"Whether or how to make those funds available is a policy question for the Board of Directors," Carpenter wrote. "If the funds are not used for that purpose within a reasonable period of time -- e.g., one year -- then, the money could revert to the City."
The city board approved the $500,000 allocation for capital improvements to the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House as part of a final budget adjustment adopted in late 2021.
Mayoral spokesman Aaron Sadler said late last year that just a small portion of the money had been spent. At the time, Sadler said the city's commitment was contingent on additional private fundraising to obtain the rest of the estimated $1.2 million needed to renovate the property.
In his memo, Carpenter wrote, "This is how this office intends to proceed until directed otherwise by the Board of Directors."
Prior to the city's entering a proposed settlement in which city officials plan to pay another party in order to end litigation, a formal resolution authorizing the agreement typically goes before the city board for approval.
When asked by phone Wednesday about his statement that the property has already reverted, Carpenter said if it is true that the property has not been kept up to the plaintiffs' desired standard, it would not require "a ruling that it's a reverter; it just has. And so we're gonna let them have it back, we're not gonna contest it. Fine, it's yours."
When City Director Capi Peck, the Ward 4 representative on the city board, raised Carpenter's memo regarding the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House at a meeting Tuesday, it did not produce much discussion.
Peck noted that she supported his recommendation. Carpenter described it as "the route we need to take, and just move on it." At-large City Director Antwan Phillips said he trusted the city attorney but needed to get up to speed on the issue before reaching out to Carpenter.
Richard H. Mays, the attorney representing the heirs, questioned Carpenter's approach after reviewing a copy of the memo on Wednesday.
Mays said by phone that "it's not as simple as the plan that is set forth in this memorandum. It's not just a matter of the city agreeing that the property reverts back to the heirs and everybody walks away."
The litigation seeks not just the return of the property due to the failure to comply with the terms of the gift, but also damages to cover the costs of repairing the property, Mays said.
He put the estimated cost of the repairs at this point at $1.8 million to $2 million.
If the city wants to officially return the property to the heirs, "that's fine, that's their choice," Mays said. "That's not exactly what the heirs want, but if that's what they want to do, that's fine."
It does not mean the plaintiffs cannot continue to pursue their claim for damages against the city and museum, according to Mays. "They can't require that we dismiss that claim," he said.
John Tull III, an attorney who has represented the museum and the museum's foundation, could not be reached for comment Wednesday regarding Carpenter's memo.