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Bottoms up, fee down

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The Governor's Mansion is wet again, and that's not all that's going down.

The usage fee for the Grand Hall banquet facility, $1,500 per event under the Huckabee administration, will be reduced. Mansion Administrator Ron Maxwell said Gov. Mike Beebe “feels strongly the mansion and Grand Hall are to be utilized for the people of Arkansas; it's their home too, and he doesn't feel they should be charged exorbitant fees.”

The $1,500 fee amount was arrived at by looking at charges by other venues around town, Maxwell believes. The new fee has not yet been set. Catering fees will stay largely the same, based on the menu requested. The mansion employs an executive chef (Jason Knapp), a sous chef (Clark Huff) and an apprentice chef (Maria Smith).

Proceeds from the Grand Hall go into the state treasury.

The new administration has ushered in other changes to the mansion machinery: Liquor will be served, as mentioned. And Maxwell said he “will have no role with the [Mansion] Association.” That will be a change from the past, when the Mansion administrator took care of the day-to-day business of the Mansion Association, a non-profit organization that raises funds for improvements to the home. Bingham did not allow public inspection of the association's records, claiming an exemption for them as governor's working papers. He left none behind. An FOI request by the Times last year produced a single page, a form for Grand Hall rental.

“They have their own president, treasurer and officers,” and will take care of their own business, Maxwell said. He will attend the meetings “as an observer.” Maxwell said he and the first lady are working out the procedure “to get this administration on a proper track.”

The association and former first lady Janet Huckabee had plans drawn up for a 5,000-square-foot governor's residence on the mansion grounds. Mrs. Huckabee dropped the idea in 2005, saying it wasn't the right time. Candace Martin, press liaison for the Beebes, was surprised to learn of those plans, and said building a new mansion was not an interest of the Beebes'. “I think they're very happy with the mansion and living there in the private quarters,” she said. “They're enjoying making it comfortable for the people of Arkansas and for themselves, too.”

Among the things that will remain the same: The $5,000 monthly mansion allowance from the state Central Services Fund will pay for the Beebes' groceries, Martin said. The Beebes will not use the account to pay for dinners out or dry cleaning or other personal expenses, Martin said. The Huckabees used the account for both, at least in the early days of their tenure.

The first lady will also use the State Police security detail at the mansion to drive her. Martin cited a section of Arkansas code that states that the State Police are responsible for the safety and security of the governor and family.

However, the code also says the police are to provide security to the lieutenant governor and his family as well. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter has only used the State Police once to drive him to an event, his communications director, Theola Poole, said. The office decides on a case-by-case basis.

Martin said she believes security issues are greater today than in the past.

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