A New County Park Becomes Politicized

Dawn Kitterman
BRADENTON — In what should have been a relatively benign and straightforward process led by the board, the naming of a new community park in Manatee County became more about hyper-partisan politics and the upcoming local elections than the community it will serve.

The park, which is set to be completed in February of 2023, is in Commissioner Misty Servia’s district 4 across from Kinnan Elementary School. In early March, the county announced a survey to help in naming the park, requesting name suggestions from Manatee residents. The survey closed on March 31. 

Servia worked with county staff to produce a video explaining the initiative and the process the county would follow in renaming the park. Once the survey closed, all suggestions received would go before the Citizens Coalition on Growth, a citizen committee based in district 4. The citizen committee would then narrow the park name suggestions down to the top picks and would provide their short-list to Servia to bring back to the board. The board would then choose the final name using the committee’s short-list as a base for potential names. 

But that is not the process that was followed. 

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh decided that the process was taking too long and had grown impatient with the item not being brought before the board. Despite the park's opening being months away, Baugh decided to force the item before the board for discussion by adding it to the commissioners' agenda in her name—an unusual step for a commissioner who had no role in the creation of the survey created to name the park, the set process, and who was not the district commissioner where the park would be located. 

Baugh stated Tuesday, as she introduced the item for discussion, that she learned from the survey results that the suggestion that received the most entries was "Ron Desantis Park"— or some version that would name the park after the governor.

Servia began her comments by revealing that she was aware that emails and fliers had been created and disseminated by her primary opponent, Mike Rahn, encouraging his supporters to submit the name Ron Desantis. Rahn is vying to unseat Servia from the district 4 seat in 2022 and allegedly saw the park naming as ripe for political gamesmanship. 

Rahn likely saw an opportunity to put Servia in a position to either support naming the park after the governor or confirm the labeling her opponent has given her of RINO (Republican in name only) and someone who does not support the governor, allegations Rahn has been making against Servia since the beginning of his campaign. 

"I feel that this process has been hi-jacked by Commissioner Baugh for purely political reasons," Servia said as she opened her comments on Tuesday about the park. 

Baugh and Rahn are close friends, with Baugh having referred to Rahn as her "brother" in at least one public post on Facebook. Baugh and her husband appear as donors to Rahn’s campaign on Supervisor of Election records, and Baugh has been vocal about her desire to see Rahn succeed at unseating her fellow Republican commissioner. Baugh and Rahn also share a connection to Tampa-based political operative Anthony Pedicini, who consulted for Baugh’s campaign in 2020, and who also released the official campaign announcement for Rahn’s campaign to the press. 

Servia also shared that it was her perception that Baugh may have more than one motive to insert herself into the naming of the park. Servia suggested that while she personally does not see the governor truly being honored by having a small local dog park named after him, Baugh may see it as an opportunity to provide a grand compliment to the governor before an upcoming ethics hearing she faces in August. 

The ethics hearing was scheduled after the Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause to believe Baugh may have abused her position for her part in setting up a state-run vaccine pop-up at Premier Sports Complex in her district. Baugh infamously directed county staff to manipulate the county-established random lottery system by instructing staff to extract only resident names who resided within two zip codes in the commissioner’s district. Baugh also created a list of five people, including herself, that she wanted to see prioritized for appointments without being entered into the lottery. 

Should the hearing not go well for Baugh, and the administrative law judge assigned to oversee the case decides the evidence and testimony proves Baugh violated ethics laws—and if the ethics commission recommends the most severe consequence of removal—it would be DeSantis who would receive that recommendation. In an ethics case that results in a recommendation for an elected official’s removal, it is the governor and his cabinet who are tasked with deciding whether to accept the recommendation.

Baugh denied that her upcoming ethics hearing played any role in her adding the item to the agenda. She also denied having any part in coordinating with her close friend Rahn, or that she added the item to the agenda for the purpose of assuring it came before the board prior to the August primaries in an effort to help create campaign material for her friend to use in the race against incumbent Servia. 

Servia came to Tuesday’s meeting prepared, with copies of emails sent out by her opponent and other documentation she felt would help confirm to the board the politicization that has taken over the process for naming the park. 

One such email sent by Rahn reads in part: 

"Dear Fellow Patriot,
My liberal opponent is having a contest, and I want conservatives like us to take it over… I think you need to let my opponent know we should name our next Manatee County Park after America’s Governor, Ron DeSantis…this will drive my liberal opponent crazy because she suggested that our Governor was racist when he tried to get the vaccine to Manatee County Seniors living in our community.”

Political operatives have been pushing that last point heavily, ever since the scandal over Baugh’s actions during the state vaccine pop-up scandal became public. FOX News infamously became involved when "Vaccinegate" went national, using statements Servia said in a BOCC meeting out of context, and twisting them to make it appear the statements were said of the governor instead of the actions directed by Baugh. 

The allegation stems from comments that Servia made in a since heavily reported commission meeting where it was first brought to light that Baugh had worked to organize the state-run vaccine pop-up center without the inclusion—or knowledge—of her colleagues.

At the time, Servia said to Baugh, "We ask why we think there is a racism problem perceived in Manatee County? This adds to that argument. You’re taking the whitest and richest demographic in Manatee County and putting them ahead of everyone else." 

Though Servia publicly pronounced her gratitude to the governor multiple times for his effort to bring more vaccines to Manatee—and although she never called anyone a "racist," not even Commissioner Baugh—some of her criticisms of Baugh’s actions were misrepresented as having been criticisms of Governor Desantis himself.

On February 16, when commissioners first learned of the pop-up, expanded details were not available to clarify whether the selection of zip codes was a direct order from the governor, or whether Baugh made the decision to restrict vaccine appointments to two zip codes. As more details became available in the days that followed, commissioners better understood that it was Baugh—not the governor—who directed staff to manipulate the random lottery pool. 

For anyone who watched the February 16 meeting, or the subsequent February 18 meeting, it is clear that Servia's statements are about Baugh’s single-handed decision to manipulate the random lottery vaccine pool established by the county and limit it only to the benefit of her constituents. 

Servia also stated at the time that she did not believe the governor had been made aware of the system put into place for a random lottery pool for vaccine appointments, and that doing so unfairly put DeSantis in the line of fire. As for the park, Servia said that while she was perfectly fine with naming it after DeSantis, she felt that the decision should be pushed until after the election to remove the political element. In fact, she asked whether a small community dog park was even an adequate venue to honor a governor with, and suggested that the commission could perhaps find a more meaningful landmark.

The political theatrics did not stop with Baugh and Servia's exchange. County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge actually said of the debate, "I feel like I am in Georgia in 2016 and we're cheating Trump out of an election."

In the end, Servia acquiesced and the board voted 6-1 to name the park after DeSantis, with Democrat Reggie Bellamy casting the lone dissenting vote.

Click the video below to replay the portion of the commissioners' discussion on the naming of the park. 

Reader Comments
MAY 28, 2022  •  If you honestly think that this was wrong, please take 5 minutes to attach this article and write an e-mail message to Governor Desantis, re: “Please decline Commissioner Baugh’s corrupt community park naming in Manatee County”. I am sure the Governor will be happy to learn that his name will be permanently attached to the crap of these corrupt commissioners. The citizens of this community need to become one voice on this corruption. [email protected]
MAY 27, 2022  •  Baugh and Rahn sound like whiny spoiled brats! Commissioner Servia is one of the only commissioners who actually responds to emails and tried to get things done for her constituents. I hope she winds her campaign because it sounds like her opponent is using dirty tactics and is very unethical to say the least!
Larry Kitterman
MAY 26, 2022  •  Not only do I think this is wholly appropriate to give the Governor his due but I think we should also come up with an acronym using all of the County Commissioner's names and let's not forget our illustrious County Administrator. Here is my rationale and ANY responsible dog owner will relate. It only is a matter of time before the oblivious dog owners (substitute County Commissioner here) will begin leaving their hot steaming piles of CRA*P laying around the park for others to step in. Eventually a very few responsible dog owners (I wish you could substitute County Commisioner here but alas no) will clean up the little land mines of CR*P, but only until they realize it is an exercise in futility. Eventually the responsible dog owners will move on just as I did.
MAY 26, 2022  •  What an appropriate name for a dog park!!!
Steve Little
MAY 25, 2022  •  For the sake of Sanity, nothing should be named after a politician of any stripe. Politics ebb and flow. Politicians come and go. Name it after one of the teachers killed yesterday trying to protect their students. Now THAT’s a hero worthy of naming a park after!
MAY 25, 2022  •  "this is why we can't have nice things" Baugh and her friend Rann don't care the community they care about winning even messing with something so basic as a tax payer funded park
Cat L
MAY 25, 2022  •  This is the focus of their attention...?! Seriously?
Sandra J. Gander
MAY 25, 2022  •  Not surprising... today "poor taste" and "no class" really fit those calling themselves Republican. How sad a come down for what once was the "Grand Old Party"! Look closer to home for a local hero - man/woman - who embodies "good" for the "whole" community. There must be "one" in Manatee county.
MAY 25, 2022  •  How does Baugh dream up the ways she can continuously lower herself? This is pathetic. I like the governor a lot, but he has nothing to do with this.
MAY 25, 2022  •  How does Baugh dream up the ways she can continually lower herself? I like the governor a lot, but he has nothing to do with this. Truly pathetic...
MAY 25, 2022  •  How does Baugh dream up the ways she can continually lower herself? I like the governor a lot, but this stunt is pathetic.
Allyn Gray
MAY 25, 2022  •  I thought they were going to ask the governor if it was OK to name the park after him? I would say no thanks. He is a great governor and deserves a much more substantial project to be named after him.
Wendy Luck
MAY 25, 2022  •  I can't think of a better place to put Desantis name, a park where dogs poop all over is perfect fitting for this waste of a human.
Barbara Angelucci
MAY 25, 2022  •  Commission meetings are discussions for the items that would benefit all citizens of this County. Why has it turned to politics and past elections? This is political posturing.
Sandra Dolores Brut-Christensen
MAY 25, 2022  •  Since when is DeSantis “Americas” governor? What a laugh.
MAY 25, 2022  •  Naming public infrastructure after people who are still alive, without having even completed a term of government, is extremely gauche. It was gauche when some elementary school in Virginia did that for Barack Obama even though Obama had just completed his term and it's gauche to do it for Ron DeSantis. But I suppose that it's fitting, in a way, since the park will be full of s***.