And the Winner is: Developers

Dennis Maley
One of the most frustrating things about being a political columnist is hearing people complain endlessly about the status quo while continuing to support it blindly. This week’s general election all but ensured that the issues most Manatee County residents profess to care most about—traffic, wetland destruction, flooding, red tide and other matters related to overdevelopment—were all but guaranteed to continue to get worse as voters once again sent a full slate of developer-sponsored candidates to important positions throughout the county.

I realize that I may be, for the most part, preaching to the choir. If you’re reading this column, you’re much less likely to be someone who’s not well aware as to why the status quo is so easily perpetuated. Manatee County is deep red, as evidenced by the 20-30 point plus Republican margin of victory in every partisan race on this year’s ballot. There’s little to no Democratic opposition in most races and most of what should be open primaries are closed off by the write-in loophole.

As such, Republicans voting in primaries—who statistically tend to be the most partisan and be motivated largely by broader cultural issues and party talking points—have an oversized influence, making expensive, laser-targeted campaigning on such matters highly effective. As a result, deep-pocketed special interest groups—which in Manatee County is almost always related to new home construction—have a large incentive to invest in candidates who either truly believe that scattershot, unsustainable growth practices driven by the builder’s bottom line are economically worth their many negative side-effects, or don’t really care and are willing to do as they are told for the sake of a cushy job that comes with a litany of perks.

Cynics often ask me why better people don’t run, and I usually tell them it’s because good people so rarely win and the cost of going against the prevailing tide is most notably paid in the form of vicious, vitriolic attack ad campaigns, ruthlessly deployed to assassinate their characters, bringing pain to spouses, children, family, and friends. Couple that with the nearly impossible task of financing a competitive campaign when you’re only promising good governance and it’s not too difficult to see why the more pure of heart have little appetite for the process.

Sure, the relatively small population of citizen activists and good-government watchdogs who follow local government closely will applaud a well-intended, grassroots candidate, and if that person is willing to put the time and effort into engaging the community, they can raise the modest sum of money that should and very much used to be required to campaign effectively. But the financial influence that a government like the Manatee County Commission has grown to have in the recent decades of hyper-growth has meant that those seeking not so much an effective government as one that will bend to their will possess a much larger incentive to hijack the process by purchasing influence.

For those who do not understand how what seems like such a low-level of governance can wield so much fiscal influence, consider this. If someone owns a large piece of property zoned for agricultural use and allows for one house on every five acres of land, the market will set a certain value for it. But if someone else can purchase that parcel and use their influence with the commission to have the rules changed to allow for perhaps three or four houses per acre, and then gets other concessions such as permission to destroy protected wetlands in order to squeeze a few more in, the potential profit in developing that land skyrockets. Sometimes, they don’t even develop the land and just sell it to another builder, keeping the profit their political influence created. In other cases, they convince the county to then buy the land in order to prevent them from developing it—and at the new value that the commission’s decisions have created.

In this sense, the board of county commissioners and the city councils can essentially spin money out of thin air. Hence, the incentive for developers to sprinkle a mere fraction of the millions and millions of dollars such practices yield on ensuring that there is always a majority of friendly faces on the board. But while those six-figure investments are a mere pittance for such enterprises, they always grossly outweigh the previously-reasonable amount of money that is still achievable for issue-based candidates who do not take the dirty needle of special interest largesse.

Of course, there are mechanisms that were envisioned as ways to prevent big money from hijacking the electoral process, such as campaign finance limits, but as these interests gained more and more influence over the elected officials in charge of their implementation and enforcement, the guard rails were lowered until they were no more than an illusory sticker on a flat road. A single benefactor could already skirt the individual donor limits by issuing maximum donations in the name of every family member, business, and LLC they control to stuff the candidate’s campaign coffers, even unlimited before dark-money political action committees made it all but impossible to not only limit the financial influence of such interests but even make the public aware of who such parties were.

After Tuesday's election, the seven-member Manatee County Commission will now have seven members who've taken money from politically-connected developers to get elected. In the cases of four—Kevin Van Ostenbridge, George Kruse, Misty Servia, and Vanessa Baugh—development-related interests were their largest benefactors. As such, the board that will be seated this month represents the most developer-supported board in the county's history, ensuring that it will continue to be little more than a rubber stamp to whatever ideas builders have in terms of the kind of community Manatee County should grow into.

If you want to know why those aforementioned issues never get solved and only seem to get worse, this is your answer. So long as the bottom line is driving all phases of planning and approvals, the myriad of negative consequences created by a lack of both planning and common sense will continue to grow like a cancerous mass. And like a cancerous mass, it will only become more difficult to rectify the longer it is allowed to grow unabated by an intervention. Don’t count on traffic getting anything but worse, same for flooding, runoff, red tide, and every other wart that unchecked growth causes us to incur.

Nothing will change until the population of citizens who pay attention grows to a critical mass; until people stop allowing themselves to be so easily drawn into the culture war issues of partisan politics and realize that you can tell far less about a candidate for local office from the party affiliation next to their name than you can by the names next to the contributions on their campaign finance report. In this election, knowingly or not, Manatee County voted for Build until it Hurts, Quality of Life be Damned. And it will likely take a long time and a lot of hard work if they are ever to undo the harm that will surely be done as a result.

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University, where he earned a degree in Government. He later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. Dennis's latest novel, Sacred Hearts, is available here.

Reader Comments
John Skey
DEC 13, 2020  •  Ms Whitmore- First sentence, "has went from" is poor English so I hope it was just a typo and you are a bit more educated than that. You seem to address all the services that have kept up with the growth in the county, and you also address keeping property taxes from climbing. That's great, but you don't address the biggest complaint: That you are beholden to developers. You can do all those other things, but will you greenlight every condo complex or housing project wanting approval? That is the question. The fact is pretty much everyone here is an "interloper" of sorts- not from here, certainly not "indigenous" to this area. So even though I grew up here, I don't mind and totally understand why people want to live here- I hate "localism"- we all came from somewhere else at some point and I'm not against snowbirds or whomever else may want to come. However, there comes a time when we need commissioners not doing the developers bidding in West Bradenton. I think you are way too developer friendly. Please prove me wrong. At this point in West Bradenton, NOTHING good will come from more development except money in the developers pockets (and maybe yours).
Meg Hughes
NOV 10, 2020  •  Manatee County race Kruze vs Hunzeker was featured in the Sunday New York Times Magazine Nov. 1, 2020. It illustrated the power of money and social media. It is worthy of a read.
Richard Eppinga
NOV 09, 2020  •  Praise the Lord for this reporter! Would that his tribe would increase. It will not. Would that our county were better governed. No hope discernible. The people who long since became wealthy at public expense desire to be wealthier still. They will. The candidates for office they favor in the name of clean government and service to the people are--voila--elected. As if by magic, obstacles and impediments disappear. When presented with evidence of improprieties, they claim what might appear to be violation of ordinance, plan, policy, practice, precedent, regulation, rule, and law is actually not so--and in fact is the best interest of the county and its citizens. When it seems the swamp cannot become deeper, it does. Of course it does....
Russell Owens
NOV 09, 2020  •  As we continue to sell out our farmland to developers, citizens need to know that agriculture provides a positive return on every dollar invested. Development has a cost return per dollar of investment.
Heywood J.
NOV 09, 2020  •  Carol Whitmore - You are lying. Our property taxes go up every year and the county mismanages them every year. Say NO to Democrats!
Henry Kuhlman
NOV 09, 2020  •  Some animals like cattle can eat themselves to death given the opportunity. This analogy applies to western Manatee. It’s sanctioned public corruption that allows public officials to feed the developers the County’s future. By contrast, in eastern Manatee’s Mosaic mining “Badlands,” big money is spent to keep out development. Look at Hardee County. over $50,000,0000 of economic development funds to replace economies decimated by mining have purposely been misappropriated to keep development and new jobs out. Interestingly, three of, arguably the most corrupt county commissioners in decades were voted out of office this time. Possibly because of perpetual exposure of their corruption on social media sites like Facebook’s Hardee County Truth. Imagine, purposely depopulating a county for one company that can’t have outsiders moving there to interfere with destroying a large percentage of where happy rural families used to live. What the new Commissioners do now is anyone’s guess. So sad. Look at your own Manatee— full development to the west and reverse development to the east. With the ability of businesses to buy elections with donation shenanigans, I’m afraid there is no stopping Florida from eating itself to death — by just three commissioner votes each bite. History has shown with our Species, if it’s possible to kill every last Buffulo, it will be done.
Linnie Hall
NOV 09, 2020  •  Ms. Whitmore, please, does anyone proofread your copy?!?
Chris Gilbert
NOV 09, 2020  •  Dennis, the problems you discuss are why I ran for office. Our BoCC too often leaves us little choice but to seek office, because the majority of our board is either resigned to a sense of helplessness about growth management, or too many are (and I believe this is more likely), careerists who know what they have to do to remain in office. Sometimes, individual Commissioners are made uncomfortable when we talk about special interest money’s hold on them, as Misty is, here. She protests, “I’m beholden only to the citizens of Manatee County …” However, we don’t have to look hard to see that Misty’s actions and votes conflict with what she needs us to believe. Just recently, in the Muskgrave land acquisition, she touted the full-cost efficiency of the deal and gave her full support in one meeting, then, after a dark money campaign against the deal arose, she moved to reconsider it. She could not even raise her eyes to look at the attendees, as she timidly questioned whether the purchase would now meet our needs. Don’t misunderstand, Misty’s conscience is still intact, even if she isn’t free to work for what is right, and that is a good thing. Vanessa, and the new representatives won’t have a problem with what anyone in our community thinks of them, apart from the Neals, and Mr. Beruf. There will probably be less empty self-defensive rhetoric coming from them about the issue of development--but that is hardly superior to Misty. But let me say it, again, the board could ask the state to change the laws that prevent better growth management; it can enforce the existing code; it can make the code better; its members can help the Trust for Public Land conserve land, here, instead of discounting the potential of the measure. All these require freedom, and the board is anything but independent of special interests. So, the defensive statements made by the board, here, are tired, and unpersuasive. We all know what is happening to Manatee County. I can’t make the board protect our quality of life, but I can defend the truth you speak, here. And I will. Chris Gilbert Former Chair, Tree and Land Preservation Board of Bradenton
NOV 08, 2020  •  I retired to Bradenton six years ago for the low cost of living and the weather. Now, it's time to go back to New England. I am old, tired, and at 72, can't really afford to move again. But it's looking imperative.
Betsy Benac
NOV 08, 2020  •  Same old story - it’s the BOCC fault that farmland turns into development. Such a ridiculous premise needs to corrected. In the USA people get to choose where they want to live, and they continue to choose to live in Manatee County. Consistent with the State Mandated Comprehensive Plan, the BOCC approves rezonings that meet the Comp Plan ( no variances allowed) and LDC. The growth in staff has not kept up with the Growth in population, so pointing to a “ growth in government “ by the BOCC is inaccurate. And why the pass on James Satcher, a candidate that I did not support in the primary due to the fact that he has never even owned property in Manatee County or held a job to my knowledge yet was heavily supported by development interests?
Misty Servia
NOV 08, 2020  •  I generally appreciate your editorials, Dennis, but in this one I must clarify. I’m beholden only to the citizens of Manatee County, and particularly those who are District 4. Every decision I make is through the lens of maintaining and improving the lives of our residents and supporting our businesses. It’s a role where I will never make everyone happy, but I will strive to always do the best for our community and live within our means. This is ever challenging as state and federal mandates are pushed to local governments. Stay tuned for conversations on how Manatee County will handle additional FEMA and health needs.
NOV 08, 2020  •  It should also be noted that it appears a few of the planners also work for the developers.  You watch them "interpret" the code and clearly go against it, just look at the Cox dealership.  It doesn't matter that the public shows up in force.  They just don't care.  Citizens along the "urban corridor" have zero rights- it has all been left up to the planners to determine their future without any public input.  We see how well this "interpretation" has worked out for the rest of the county, so the future of the residents living adjacent to the urban corridor is pretty depressing. Unless of course we turn into one long storage facility along Manatee Ave and at this point it might be the best option.
Carol Whitmore
NOV 08, 2020  •  Manatee County has went from a population of approximately in a 200,000 to 411,000 today since I was elected in 2009. Our board has not raised your property taxes since 2009 and been able to provide services for the onslaught of new growth over the years. New growth does pay a portion of the cost but we still have to maintain services to the entire county. Examples of that is when you turn on your water in the morning and you have water that is safe to drink, able to flush your toilet’s, The integrity of the dam out east is still intact, EMS response approx. within seven minutes to a call which is literally life or death, The sheriff response anywhere in the county when there’s a citizen indeed, library doors are open for the public, roads are being built with new growth and older roads are being paid for by gas taxes over the 740 mi.² of Manatee County, parks are provided for quality of life, sidewalks are being maintained and built as we speak. Manatee County pays and provides shelter for approximately 1000 inmates daily at our jail. We provide a courthouse system for the clerk & our judges, we provide a animal shelter for approximately 4000 animals a year that people just throw on the side of the road or abandon and many more services, Citizens voted for a children’s tax in the 80s to protect children. The focus has been early learning reading and child abuse. We believe in protecting our kids. We have had a fiscally conservative board that has been in place since 2009. When I first came our budget was 670 million today it’s approximately 714 million. That is not a uncontrolled growth board in my opinion. I truly believe that the new board members are fiscally conservative and they will not raise taxes as well. We have a place that everyone wants to learn and whether we all like it or not we have to be able to provide services for quality of life. When I moved here 51 years ago, I expected the same services then as today. Senator galvano has appointed me on the Governors task force to look at Waste in government all over the state of Florida. I don’t think that would’ve happened if The state wouldn’t have recognized how physically conservative leaders of our county are. Government is not out of control, growth has forced us to be creative and provide services without raising taxes. We’ve done a good job.
Bob Miller
NOV 08, 2020  •  My rant for the day. For more than three years scaffolding has Surrounded the County court house. No work is being done and it is “ugly” . Told that there is a lawsuit pending. Time to get it down. I would think the judges housed in the building would “git er done”.
Bob Spencer
NOV 08, 2020  •  You seem like the boy who cried wolf. Maybe people care more about stopping the growth of local government. Under the past BOCC government has grown and the taxpayers have been ignored. Watch what happens with the present BOCC . I believe they will curtail the growth of government and protect the environment. It is interesting that so many people continue to move here despite your concerns about the influence of developers.