Are Special Interests Gunning for County Administrator?

Dennis Maley
At Tuesday's Manatee County Commission meeting, what would have normally been a routine item regarding County Administrator Cheri Coryea's annual performance evaluation erupted into tense exchanges between commissioners, at least one of whom sees a larger proxy battle in the works.

Coryea had given over three decades of exemplary service to the county when she was named acting county commissioner in March of 2019, following the somewhat abrupt retirement of Ed Hunzeker, who'd been recently been reprimanded and had his spending authority reduced by a board he'd once held an enormous amount of influence over after ignoring commissioners' directives with regard to the location of a proposed emergency services tower.

Hunzeker's peculiar rise and fall is instructive, as to the way the politics of our local government really work. He was hired as Manatee County Administrator in 2007, just months after he had been abruptly dismissed as the administrator by the county commission in Osceola County. Once in Manatee, Hunzeker went to work on a relentless agenda of streamlining the development approval process, much to the liking of politically-connected developers. 

The culture of the planning department and building services changed drastically, as allegiance seemed to be prized much more than excellence. Much of the staff's collective institutional knowledge evaporated with the help of a major staff downsizing during the Great Recession and, in general, it got easier than ever to build what you wanted in Manatee. However, in a testament to just how much fealty is demanded by the development community here in Manatee County, Hunzeker still managed to run afoul of at least one of its CEOs, Medallion Homes' Carlos Beruff.

While Hunzeker was certainly a friend of the highest order to builders, in terms of making it much easier for them to get controversial comp plan amendments and rezones for their developments approved, he stopped short of taking direct marching orders from them, particularly on non-development issues. Things first started to go sideways between Hunzeker and Beruff when the former began championing an ill-advised "indigent healthcare sales tax" in late 2012.

As I wrote at the time, the tax was something of a boondoggle for for-profit healthcare providers which stood to make millions via payments to the county for an ever-expanding range of services provided to mostly homeless and otherwise indigent citizens. What's worse, Hunzeker wasn't honest about the tax itself, which he traveled all over the county selling as a "property tax reduction."

At this point, I should offer a bit of context. Manatee sold its county-owned hospital (Manatee Memorial) to private interests in the early 1980s and put the massive windfall into a corpus, the interest of which would be used for indigent care, in accordance with state statutes. However, rather than manage the scope of services in order to align with the money available, as had occurred in the first couple decades and could have gone on indefinitely, vastly expanded services in the later years saw the county begin to eat into its principle until it was predictably spent down to nothing. 

Rather than have an ongoing conversation about how that should play out, citizens were told that a half-cent sales tax would create more than enough money to maintain the status quo and that the excess would be used to reduce the millage rate for property taxes. Even if the first part were to prove true, a sales tax cannot be used in place of property taxes and neither the existing or future boards would be prevented from increasing spending elsewhere, so the idea that a citizen's vote in favor of the referendum was a vote for reducing their own property taxes—which Hunzeker explicitly stated—was patently untrue.

The referendum failed by a nearly 2-1 margin with the help of an expensive (and arguably equally-dishonest) dark money PAC campaign, mostly funded by development interests. As I reported at the time, someone directly involved with the PAC told me that the developer donors' real interest had nothing to do with the tax itself, but rather in preserving the option for an infrastructure sales tax, which would help pay for all of the quality of life necessities that the county's unwillingness to collect tens of millions of dollars in development impact fees during Hunzeker's time as administrator had inhibited.

Florida counties are allowed to have up to one additional cent in sales tax rates above the state-mandated six percent. Optional half-cent taxes can be used for education, indigent healthcare, and infrastructure—provided they are approved by voter referendum. At the time, there were no additional taxes in place, though the school district, which had just seen its books cooked to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in hidden deficits masquerading as a surplus, had already indicated that it would be asking voters for both the half-cent tax and a voluntary millage increase. 

Suffice it to say, no one wants to compete with "money for our teachers and kids," so the healthcare sales tax was seen as a threat to an infrastructure tax, and, once it was defeated, referendums for both a half-cent education tax and infrastructure tax were later passed, after developers cut a very public deal with school board members to promote their half-cent tax in exchange for ... you guessed it ... the continuation of reduced school impact fees. 

Because a dollar in growth costs about $1.25 in services, impact fees are one of the ways that Florida counties pay for growth-related costs, which is particularly important in a state that doesn't have an income tax. Developers hate them because they take away from their bottom line. While they attempt to scare the public by claiming it's passed onto the buyer and therefore leads to a dearth in affordable housing, the reality is that, in a free-market, houses sell for whatever the market commands and anything that is included in the total purchase price and does not go to the seller (such as a tax) lowers the profit margin. If that weren't true, builders wouldn't go through so much cost and effort not to pay them, and if the affordability of workforce housing were a concern, they'd actually show interest in building some.

When Hunzeker began losing the support of the board, Beruff was eager to see him go. However, he was also said to be very vocally not in favor of Coryea as a replacement. At the time, it was no secret that he and the development community were pushing for Dom Dimaio, President of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, an organization that is closely tied to the real estate/development community. However, Coryea had built very good working relationships with a majority of board members who, despite pressure to do otherwise, unanimously approved her ascent to permanent county administrator, the first female to ever hold the position in Manatee County history.

But this year’s election brought change to the board in the form of three new developer-sponsored commissioners, including two—George Kruse and Kevin Van Ostenbridge—whose seats were all but purchased by Beruff and have proved extremely willing to carry his water even before being seated. Beruff and developer friend Pat Neal are strongly opposed to the county’s planned purchase of land adjacent to its Lena Road landfill to build a much-needed east county operations center, ostensibly to avoid big government overspending (a concern that doesn’t extend to the times when the developers themselves wish to sell the county land for a preserve or fleets services facility or deny its coffers the prescribed impact fee revenue).

The true reason for their opposition isn’t entirely clear, but, given the fact that there was serious dark PAC money spent trying to derail it, you can bet it’s not a simple matter of the local government’s fiscal prudence. Could it be an effort to hang an albatross around Coryea’s neck ahead of the new board being seated, after which a move is made to replace her with someone more to the developers' liking?

At Tuesday’s meeting, Coryea’s performance review was, for the most part, glowing. It reflected the many beneficial initiatives that have been undertaken by her administration, as well as her exemplary handling of the COVID-19 crisis. While the eval sheets were made public, the individual commissioners’ ratings were not. While the vast majority of scores and comments were exceedingly positive, it appeared that a single commissioner was fairly brutal in their appraisal (six ratings of needs improvement and one of unacceptable). 

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who represents most of the east county and was herself installed by the development community, went out of her way to let everyone watching on Tuesday know that it wasn’t her. Baugh said that the scorecards, which noted seven scores (one per each commissioner), couldn’t be correct, as she had not done the evaluation because she preferred to have her conversation with Coryea privately. 

By process of elimination, given the praises of Coryea that have been sung by five of the other six current members, it was easy to guess that it was outgoing Commissioner Stephen Jonsson that had dinged her so mercilessly. 

After an awkward exchange about whether commissioners were required to submit evals, in which Baugh seemed ill at ease, Commission chair Betsy Benac, who was in her last meeting before retiring the seat Kruse will next inhabit, noted that while Coryea had forgone the possibility of an upward pay adjustment, she felt it was appropriate to increase the number of rolled over unused vacation days allowed to Coryea to the same as the county attorney (the only other employee hired by the board) in the interest of both equity and respect for the fact that the ongoing COVID crisis had made it all but impossible for her to take days off for any reason.

Voting against the measure, which passed 5-2, were Baugh and Jonsson. Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who at 14 years is the board's longest-serving incumbent, had apparently had enough and finally spoke publicly about the Machiavellian machinations that have been taking place. 

"There are people in this community who don't want Cheri in this position," said Whitmore, adding that she'd heard of displeasure with Coryea again during the election cycle. "We all know what's going on," said the commissioner. "It's just not being said publicly. I know for a 100 percent fact this is what is going on."

Whitmore didn’t mention Baugh by name, although the district 3 commissioner immediately got defensive, barking at Whitmore for what she took to be an accusation and claiming that no one does or would tell her what to do or how to vote.

Now, I certainly hope it’s just the cynicism that comes from having covered Manatee County government for the past decade, and that no commissioner in their right mind would be looking to get rid of a county administrator who has proven herself to be as extremely competent, extraordinarily dedicated and fiercely independent-minded as Coryea has. But all of the coordinated efforts to sew mistrust of her administration make me wonder if it’s not the groundwork for doing just that. 

Ginning up the far-right element that dominates Manatee County politics on a message of big government overspending and/or overreach isn’t very difficult, and there are a number of ways one could have thought they noticed it being done in recent months and perhaps even at that same meeting. As is often the case when it comes to what I write about in this column, I desperately hope I’m wrong and all of this isn’t connected to getting a more pliable administrator to helm the administration, followed by going after whatever non-puppet commissioners remain in future elections. 

After all, one of the more peculiar aspects of Coryea's contract is that she can be terminated with or without cause by only a simple majority of the board, instead of the usual simple majority with cause, and supermajority without. But judging by the cards that are on the table as well as the ones that have been held by tipped hands, the odds seem to be against it.

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.

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Reader Comments
Adam
NOV 20, 2020  •  Mike Gore will be the next hatchet job courtesy of Commissioner Van Ostenbridge, as retaliation from Beruff, for the garbage can incident where he shuts Carlos down by stating that we have rules for a reason and we aren't changing them for one person. 
Diana
NOV 20, 2020  •  I urge every citizen in our county to view the November 19 special commissioner's meeting from start to finish. This was a meeting to give "Direction to the County Attorney to Research the County’s Legal Rights in a Federal Shutdown of the Economy."  Nowhere in the agenda did the Board state that they would be changing rules and procedures by adding a waiver to the rules. Nowhere in the agenda did they state they would use these newly wavered rules to try to fire the County Administrator.  Where exactly is the transparency to the public? This was done without public notification or comment.  If there is now a waiver to change the rules why do we even have rules?
Junior
NOV 19, 2020  •  Kevin Van Ostenbridge pulled a cowardly move during today's County Commissioner meeting and the fact that a long-time sitting Commissioner just went along with it, is pretty disgusting. Ms. Coryea did not deserve this treatment so Vanessa, Kevin, and James, all of you should be ashamed of yourselves. Ms. Coryea has a job to carry out the will of this board so she was doing her job as it states within her role and responsibilities as the County Administrator. Then again, why should any of us be surprised?! After all, it was Kevin who decided to use a picture of an underage child during his smear campaign against Matt Bower. Manatee County is stuck in old ways and we will never advance for the progress of all people with leadership such as this.
Robert Spencer
NOV 19, 2020  •  Let's get a county administrator with private sector experience. The way Coryea rushed through the $32,000,000 landfill contract was curious. If she was too dense to realize that rushing through a contract that large was not good politics she probably should not be running a county as large as Manatee. Don't claim that the seller was demanding a fast closing. As a seller of many large tracts, I would have easily waited for the county to overpay me for the land. Coryea rushed it through because they were afraid it would not pass muster with the new commission. She knew there would be consequences and there should be.
David Daniels
NOV 17, 2020  •  What an eye opening article. Thank you. The Carlos Beruff's and Pat Neal's of our County are looking out only for themselves. I have had some exchanges with Ms. Coryea via email where I have expressed concerns - same with Commissioner Whitmore. But I know they are intelligent, independent thinkers. Especially Ms. Whitmore has always replied honestly. I appreciate that. Thank you for the informative piece. I am embarrassed that my district voted for Mr. Jonssen and then Mr. VanOstenbridge. Both of whom owe the like of Mr. Beruff for their positions of power


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