You may have seen recent news involving some changes in leadership at the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism (ADPHT). Last week, the Arkansas Times reported on a meeting of commissioners with the State Parks, Recreation, and Travel Commission (SPRTC) and the governor without public notice. Today the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on emails that former department Secretary, Mike Mills, sent before “resigning”. It would probably help to have some background on the department.
A Brief History of State Parks Oversight
The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism was created in 1971 under Act 63, which consolidated the Arkansas Tourist Development Association and the Arkansas Parks Commission. The primary purpose of the department was to promote Arkansas as a tourist destination and oversee the state parks system.
Before the establishment of the ADPT, the state’s parks were managed by the Arkansas Parks Commission, which was formed in 1927. The Parks Commission was responsible for acquiring and developing state parks and managing them for the enjoyment of the public. The Arkansas Tourist Development Association, on the other hand, was formed in 1951 to promote tourism and attract visitors to the state.
By merging these two entities, the newly created Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism aimed to streamline operations, enhance coordination, and better promote Arkansas as a tourist destination. The department’s responsibilities included managing the state parks, promoting tourism, coordinating marketing efforts, conducting research, and facilitating economic development through tourism.
On July 1, 2019, the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and the Arkansas Department of Heritage were merged to form the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism. The merger was the result of a legislative act passed in 2017. The new department is responsible for promoting, protecting, interpreting, and managing the state’s natural and cultural resources.
My Initial Take
When the Arkansas Times reported last week on the “secret” meeting on tourism between several commissioners and the governor, my first thought was that the commission does have the power according to § 25-19-106 – Open public meetings, “Executive sessions will be permitted only for the purpose of considering employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining, or resignation of any public officer or employee.” With the recent resignation of Tourism Director, Travis Napper, it seems logical that there may be an executive meeting involving hiring or promoting someone into that position. Of course, the statute goes on to say, “The specific purpose of the executive session shall be announced in public before going into executive session.” It appears this didn’t happen, plus it is conjecture to say that the director position was the focus of the meeting since no minutes or explanations were given for the meeting outside of discussing tourism.
As far as the commissioners themselves knowing better, I would expect that they do. We know that Jim Shamburger was in attendance, he has been on the commission for a long time following his father as a commissioner. Montine McNulty, a commissioner emeritus was also at the meeting, she has over 25 years of experience on the commission and was the Executive Director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association which the department worked closely with for decades in watching legislation that affected hospitality and tourism in the legislature. That said, the ADPHT staff is historically tasked with the responsibility of following all of the rules for these meetings, creating public notices for meetings, etc. I don’t know of any changes to this process.
There is no mention in the Arkansas Times article if Interim Secretary, Shea Lewis, or any other ADPHT staff member was in attendance. Also, there is no mention in the emails provided to the Arkansas Times of any staff members (there are some redactions so we can’t know for sure). If the ADPHT staff was not involved, the responsibility of making a public notice would have gone to the governor’s office.
A Lack of Information
It seems like a simple following of the rules laid out in state statute would have kept the Arkansas Times article from getting any traction if, in fact, the meeting had followed the proper protocol spelled out in the statute. When government officials close down communications with the media, it leaves the media to dig for information which rarely puts the administration in a positive light.
In April, Rex Nelson, former aid to Governor Mike Huckabee, and senior editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette said in an opinion piece,
“During their early weeks in office, the governor and her merry band that I call the Traveling Trumpettes issued an edict to state government officials that they couldn’t visit with certain members of the media without prior approval. State officials began to call me from their private cell numbers. They were apologetic and embarrassed. I’ve known these Arkansans for years.”
Appointments I had already made were called off. It appears the governor has a Nixon- style enemies list. The irony of being blackballed is that I rarely write about politics. When I do, I always try to make criticism constructive. The appointments I had set up with department and agency heads were for columns that would have had nothing to do with politics. They were about building the Arkansas economy, a consistent theme of this column.
In my own experience, early in the administration, I was easily able to schedule and complete an interview with the new ADPHT Secretary, Mike Mills. In February 2023 I contacted Teddy Stewart, the Chief of Staff to the First Gentleman to set up an interview with Bryan Sanders with the purpose of discussing, “…his background as a mountain biker and his vision for the Natural State Initiative.” I received a nice email back from Mr. Stewart saying, “Let me touch base with the First Gentleman and schedule a time. Is your calendar fairly open?” I responded immediately and a couple of days later I asked if he had found a date, he responded, “Not quite yet, Mr. Jacobs. I will get back to you early next week. Check back with me if you do not hear from us.” That was the last time I heard from Mr. Stewart, and that was February 23. I sent four more emails over the next three months with no replies. Something had changed.
The Administration Speaks
Yesterday, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an article based on emails released through a Freedom of Information Act request. In the email, former Secretary Mills asks for a meeting with the governor to discuss, “Subjects include Parks personal, possible concessions at lodge parks, eliminating up to 7 state parks. The promotion of 3 upper management people. Partner in tourism opportunities. Finally, War Memorial Stadium strategic plan.”
From my experience in parks, there is nothing odd about this communication other than that a member of the Governor’s Cabinet would need to go through the first gentleman’s chief of staff to schedule a meeting with the governor. I would be surprised if previous cabinet members went through the chief of staff for Susan Hutchinson or Ginger Beebe to schedule a meeting with Governors Asa Hutchinson and Mike Beebe, respectively.
All of the subjects listed in Mr. Mills’ email have been part of discussions within the department for years. We don’t know if these subjects were questioned by the Governor’s office and Mr. Mills is only answering the request for information, if he is suggesting these changes or just wants to discuss them. As it’s presented, it looks like Mr. Mills was presenting his ideas and not his findings. We don’t know. We do know that Mr. Mills’ forced resignation did not make the administration look good. Mike Mills is a popular personality in the state having created a very successful outdoor recreation business over 40 years ago, being involved with tourism in the state for decades, and serving on boards and commissions. I do have it on good authority that Mills’ resignation was not his idea.
According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, the Governor’s Communications Director, Alexa Henning, “…said in a written statement Monday that Sanders is “committed to elevating our State Parks, not closing them, or firing our excellent and dedicated Parks staff, and that is one reason among many she decided to promote State Parks Director Shea Lewis to interim Secretary of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism.” Is it possible that a single email without context is being used to vilify Mr. Mills?
In response to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette inquiry, interim Director Lewis issued a statement Monday saying Sanders “never gave direction to former Secretary Mills or the department to close parks or reduce parks personnel.” He goes on to say, “The plan was created by former leadership and did not follow the directive of the Governor’s office.” I would conclude that by “former leadership”,
Lewis means that Mills had a copy of a plan that was created under previous ADPHT Secretary Stacy Hurst. Also, I don’t know how Director Lewis would know if the governor “never gave direction…” unless that is what the governor told him.
(Edit: Former Secretary Hurst reached out to say that no such plan was created during her tenure. It is unknown what Mr. Lewis is referring to by “former leadership.”)
The Email List
I feel like it is only fair to look at each of the discussion points listed in Mr. Mills’ email to Mr. Stewart.
- Parks personal – Of course, a department manager is going to discuss parks personal (personnel?) with their boss. In a separate email dated May 24, to then parks director Shea Lewis, Mills said “Parks Personal (current chart) total of 678 reduced by 13% equals 88. Currently we have 585 full time positions filled. 93 vacant. We will need to fill all those to elevate the bar at parks.” This reads to me like he was tasked with seeing what a 13% reduction in staff looked like for parks and that he was providing information on what the current levels looked like, showing that the parks were already reduced by over 13% due to unfilled positions.
- Possible Concessions at Lodge Parks – Once again, in the May 24 email to Mr. Lewis, Mills said, “Possible solution is to concession out parks lodging and restaurants. Problems with that move, accounting, long term employees, quality control.” This has been discussed for years, DeGray Lake Resort Lodge was originally managed by a concessionaire and it did not go well, eventually, the state parks had to take over the facility. Mr. Mills’ assessment of problems with using concessionaires to manage state park lodge operations is spot on. Mills has vast experience in managing a remote resort operation, his experience was touted when he was named to the position by Governor Sanders. Also, in April the Governor signed legislation that appears to make it easier to set up concessionaires in the state parks.
- Eliminating up to 7 State Parks – I might have laughed a bit at this one. In the email to Mr. Lewis the following list of parks for possible “elimination” was presented, Herman Davis in Manila, Marks Mills S.E of Fordyce, South AR Arboretum in El Dorado, Jenkins Ferry S.W. of Sheridan, Conway Cemetery near Walnut Hill, Arkansas Post Museum N.E. of Dumas, Lower White River Museum in Des Arc. These are among the lowest visitation parks in the system. The first five are unmanned parks and the final two have minimum staff and hours. Those last two originated as county museums that were added to the state park system as a political move. These parks are usually looked at when cuts to park funding are suggested. It has never happened because it really doesn’t save much money. The unmanned parks are generally managed by the closest manned state park, and are not regularly patrolled. They often rely on local volunteer groups and/or contracting a local business for upkeep. For years the unmanned parks were given a yearly budget of $5000 for operations. This was often not spent in its entirety and represents a very small part of the yearly operating budget of about $60+ million for the system. Besides, what would you do with them? Some other entity would have to take them over or they would just disappear, not a popular idea for most Arkansans. There are some larger parks that lose, after revenues, in the neighborhood of $1,000,000 per year.
- The promotion of 3 upper management people – This would be a normal conversation between a manager and their boss.
- Partner in tourism opportunities – Again, this is the job.
- War Memorial Stadium strategic plan – An ongoing issue at state parks. Former Governor Asa Hutchinson put War Memorial Stadium under the management of state parks several years ago. It’s an expensive facility to manage. Over the years as Arkansas Razorback games have diminished, the parks have had to get more creative in finding revenue to help pay for staffing, maintenance, utilities, and other expenses. The strategic plan is under constant review.
The State Park, Recreation and Travel Commission met in Mountain View at the Ozark Folk Center State Park the day after the “secret” meeting took place. I have requested the minutes from that meeting from the department. I have not heard back but I realize that it often takes a week for the recording to be transcribed. I also noticed that on the state calendar website, there are no meetings scheduled by the SPRTC, the Natural State Advisory Council, or the Arkansas Outdoor Recreation Advisory Board. I know that the SPRTC generally votes on its yearly meeting schedule in November of the previous year so there is no reason these should not be on the state schedule. I hope to receive all of the above schedules, plus I have asked for the minutes of the last meeting of each of these boards and commissions. I’ll report on those when they are received.
So an initial, reading with little or no background to the email sent from Secretary Mills to the First Gentleman’s Chief of Staff might come off as painting Mr. Mills as contemplating stripping down the Arkansas State Parks of facilities and staff. I don’t think it does. The only way to know what is really happening here would be for the Sanders Administration to open up more lines of communication with the local media.
As a former communications manager for Arkansas State Parks, I remember being asked occasionally by the parks director, “Does it pass the newspaper test?” It doesn’t seem that the current administration’s actions do.
Joe Jacobs served as the Marketing & Revenue Manager for Arkansas State Parks from 2005-2021, Mr. Jacobs also served as the chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Cycling from 2017 to 2021. He is currently the owner/editor of ArkansasOutside.com