Baugh's Proposals Bring Confusion to BOCC

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh participates in a discussion at a Tuesday BOCC meeting.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh participates in a discussion at a Tuesday BOCC meeting.
Dawn Kitterman
BRADENTON — In Tuesday's Manatee County Commission meeting, the board unanimously approved two motions authorizing the county attorney to begin work on potential policy and/or procedural changes. The motions, which were added to the meeting’s commissioner agenda by Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, initiated board discussions that publicly acknowledged ongoing issues within human resources and other matters regarding county employees.

Baugh, who is facing an upcoming ethics hearing, announced in February her intention to bring new policies forward relating to ethics and transparency within the county’s government. Although she provided few details at the time of her announcement, the initiative followed reported news that a date had been set for an administrative hearing in August, after the Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause that Baugh may have violated state ethics laws for her part in organizing a state-run vaccine pop-up site at Premier Sports Complex, in Lakewood Ranch.  

On Tuesday, Baugh sought the approval of two separate motions intended to direct the county attorney to review procedural language that the commissioner had taken from Hillsborough County’s policies and procedures for modeling and potential adoption of similar policies in Manatee County. 

One set of procedures related to the required registration of lobbyists, while the other dealt with procedures Hillsborough had adopted regarding alleged violations of the board's standards of conduct by BOCC-appointed citizen committee members. The latter was edited by Baugh to include language that would also include citizen complaints against county employees. 

The drafted documents were attached to Tuesday’s agenda, Lobbyist Registration, and Standards of Conduct, without any supporting documents or details. Both proposed motions were met with confusion by other commissioners who pressed Baugh for details. Baugh responded to questions by stressing the items would provide the transparency she felt was lacking in Manatee County’s Government. 

A point not raised during discussions around Baugh’s motions was whether any commissioners felt hesitant in considering the language proposals specifically because they were initiated by Baugh. On at least two previous occasions—one of which was referenced during an earlier item discussed during Tuesday's meeting—Baugh brought forward items she claimed to have personally initiated, but public records later revealed she had dishonestly claimed ownership of the draft documents. 

During discussions of both items, Commissioner Carol Whitmore stated that she personally sought out staff and both the county attorney and the county administrator for clarity on the intention, purpose, or detail of the submitted items. Whitmore alleged that in seeking clarity, neither the county administrator nor county attorney was able to assist, telling her, "They didn’t understand it either." 

The lengthier of the two discussions involved a motion to approve the attorney’s review of the "Standards of Conduct" partially inspired by Hillsborough County’s policy. Unlike the proposed lobbyist registration procedures, Baugh had expanded on Hillsborough’s adopted procedure which focused on the conduct of committee appointees, to include complaints against county employees. 
During the discussion, references were made that implied ongoing "sensitive issues" and "serious concerns" relating to the treatment of employees. At one point, Commissioner Reggie Bellamy shared concerns about verbal communications toward staff that he characterized as "attacks," Bellamy stated it was his perspective that some mistreatment toward employees had come from some (or at least one) of the commissioners themselves. 

Baugh assured her colleagues that her motivation was purely her effort to provide better transparency and accountability when it came to issues with employees, such as those referenced by Bellamy. Baugh explained that the current county procedure included complaints against employees being handled by the department director who oversaw the employee, a procedure she felt needed revising. 

Nevertheless, Whitmore remained uncomfortable with the manner in which Hillsborough County Policy Standards of Conduct had been expanded by Baugh to include complaints against employees. 

Clague agreed with Whitmore that should Baugh wish to expand upon the language of the Hillsborough policy, there would be human resource issues relating to "pervasive" state and federal laws. 

The county attorney said that while he understood Baugh’s intended goal, the added inclusion of complaints against employees would require assistance from the county’s HR staff for him to properly review potential policy for adoption. 

Baugh suggested a solution for investigating citizen complaints might include a form submitted by citizens that would be directed to an independent party rather than a department director. 

"If we ever get a real HR professional on staff, maybe it could go there," Baugh suggested. 

Tuesday’s meeting included the first public comments referencing the organization’s continuing struggle to hire and retain a director for the Department of Human Resources. 

On March 22, the county hired Arnel Wetzel, a candidate with a resume that included prior HR experience in both the public and private sectors. By April 18, Wetzel had quit the position. 

Nothing had been shared publicly by the county about his unexpected departure, or that he had left at all. Even in Tuesday’s meeting, few details were provided aside from statements referencing a continued need for the administrator to fill the position. 

Public records show that Wetzel accepted the position with the county in an offer that included an annual base compensation of $150,000, and a one-time relocation allowance of $8,000 to be paid in Wetzel’s first paycheck. 

TBT reached out to Wetzel via his personal email on April 27, nearly two weeks after he had left the position, inquiring whether he would be willing to speak about why he chose to leave so soon. While TBT did not receive a reply from Mr. Wetzel, TBT did receive an email from the county’s PIO, Bill Logan, who stated he had been authorized to speak on behalf of Mr. Wetzel. 

"It has come to the attention of Manatee County Information Outreach that you have been seeking comment from Arnel Wetzel, who had initially accepted a position with Manatee County as Human Resources Director before finally turning the job offer down," Logan wrote. 

"Mr. Wetzel would prefer not to speak with you directly, but has authorized the following statement:

I truly appreciate the chance to interview for this important position in a vibrant and growing community. However, due to timing issues and other personal concerns, I am unable to accept the offer at this time. I do want to wish the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners and Administration the best of luck in finding a suitable candidate for this vital role.  I appreciate their thoroughness and compassion through this involved and important process."

Public records show that Wetzel had completed the process for hire, formally assumed the position, and received at least two paychecks, a county computer, plus the moving allowance—though he never relocated and subsequently returned the $8,000 and computer to the county last week. 

During Tuesday’s discussion, Bellamy broadly referred to issues relating to human resource matters, remaining intentionally vague while referencing the matters he described as "sensitive." 

"We know that we have had some situations in certain departments," Bellamy said, "as far as staff being concerned of retaliation."

Bellamy supported any step toward addressing the issues and acknowledged that the draft for such procedures brought by Baugh may not be the final policy the county implements. Regardless of what actions the board would ultimately take to address employee treatment and the handling of complaints or allegations against employees, Bellamy agreed something needed to be done. 

"I want to say this on the record," Bellamy added, "there have been some HR issues that are not being addressed. There are some very sensitive issues," he said while turning to the county attorney to assure him he would not elaborate on any specific matters. 

Commissioner Misty Servia stated that she too was worried about potential policy changes that would impact employees.

"It’s a tough time here in Manatee County," Servia said. "Staff have been through a lot. I wouldn’t want to put them through any more without thoughtful discussion and consideration." 

In the last year and a half, Manatee County has seen the resignation of several tenured employees from vital roles, including an IT director, a children’s services coordinator, an executive assistant to the county administrator, the HR compensation manager, a comp plan manager, library services manager, a land acquisition manager, the agenda coordinator, and the manager of digital communications, among others.

Last August, the current administration terminated the Director of Human Resources who had been first hired by the county in 2010. 

County Administrator Scott Hopes acknowledged points raised by commissioners, citing personnel policies approved under previous boards that were (at least in part) responsible for current policy issues relating to human resources. He confirmed to the board that one such previously instituted policy gave the authority of disciplinary actions over employees to department directors, as Baugh had stated. 

In May of this year, the county administrator will reach the one-year anniversary of his appointment to the role of county administrator. 

"That is the reason I did this," Baugh concluded before making her motion. "Everything you have heard from the county attorney and from Dr. Hopes is exactly the reason I have brought this forward." 

"There have been a lot of very serious issues going on, some of which commissioners have caused themselves," Baugh added, without offering details. 

Most were in agreement that some action should be taken, but only after review by the county attorney. Baugh's motion to direct the county attorney to work on the item was approved unanimously.

Similarly, the other item Baugh brought to the board relating to an annual registration form and fee for lobbyists, was also met with questions by commissioners. Baugh was asked to detail who would qualify as a lobbyist, and whether any person who did would need to register on matters for which they intended to address the board or administration, or whether registration would be required to communicate with county staff as well. 

Questions were also raised as to who would oversee the record-keeping of lobbyist registrations, and whether a fee would be required per the individual or per the corporation or interests a lobbyist was representing. 

Servia questioned whether the adoption of such procedures would have the unintended consequence of expanding government by implementing fees and additional paperwork—dependent on how broad the policy was written as to who qualified as a "lobbyist."

Board Chair Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge asked Baugh whether she had any considerations as to how such a policy would be enforced, and by whom. He also questioned what the potential consequences would be for any individual qualifying as a lobbyist who failed to appropriately register with the county. 

"This is word for word, from Hillsborough County," Baugh said, stressing the importance of transparency to the public, and that transparency was the sole motivation for the item. 

Concerning details, Baugh reiterated that both her motions were only to request that the board approve direction for the county attorney to review language and return it to the board for future policy considerations. 

For his part, the county attorney confirmed to the board that such procedures are adopted in other counties, and the legal side of the issue is an "easy one." However, Clague explained, there are policy questions that would fall outside the scope of his legal advising. 

Clague suggested that members hold a work session on the subject before discussing the adoption of such a procedure. 

By the time of the vote, Baugh appeared to have become frustrated by some commissioners pressing for details. 

"I know that this will affect some commissioners, but you know what, we need to be held accountable just like everyone else," Baugh rebuked. "I’m not perfect," she said, "but at the same time, guess what? Just because you all haven’t had anything come up on you, doesn’t mean you haven’t done it."

Despite the veiled accusation, Baugh never specified any actions or commissioners she may have been referencing in her comments. 

Ultimately, Baugh held to her insistence that both items were motivated only by her desire to assure transparency. She also told the board that her motions were only the beginning of her efforts and that she would be bringing additional proposals to the board soon. 

Both motions to direct the county attorney to work on potential policies for adoption were approved unanimously by the board. 

To replay discussions on both motions from Tuesday's meeting, click the video below.

Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter for The Bradenton Times. She covers local government and entertainment news. She can be reached at [email protected]

Reader Comments
MAY 06, 2022  •  Discussion on Code Enforcement is at least a beginning. You really have two issues- employees all the way up the chain of command enforcing the code as they choose while denying citizens their health, safety, and welfare rights under the ordinances and the employees’ ability to treat the public in any manner they choose without repercussion. If you call out code enforcement on either of these actions are basically told by the county to “shut up, you stupid citizen”. Code Enforcement employees document only their version on reports, if they document at all, and only the version they wish to use. This version is many times untruthful, and the public is left in the dark until something triggers them to pull all the Code Enforcement reports and they find out that many reports have been fabricated to close cases. When this happens, the citizen has nowhere to turn because no one will listen, and commissioners are given a completely different version by staff, along with a “this is a civil matter” when in fact this is a “staff is not going to follow the ordinance” matter. In essence no one will answer you, even to give you an explanation, when you ask a question concerning why this is against or not against the ordinance. Citizens are owed a process in which to file a complaint or compliment concerning employees that will go into the employees permanent personnel file, the complaints will make a paper trail that will either be good or bad depending on the employee. As a citizen you get absolutely nowhere unless you file a lawsuit against the county which in turn cost taxpayers’ dollars. The administration and commissioners need to follow up with each citizen that was denied rights and get their input, they need to hold a workshop and allow citizens more than 3 minutes to help fix this mess. The county needs a quality control and random audit system and someone outside of the department doing this. We don’t need to hire someone to give us a slick video and spin to “tell us how great the county is”, if the county was doing such a great job, we wouldn’t need someone to spin the bad press to get rid of these problems. The citizens need accountability.
Garrett Ramy
MAY 04, 2022  •  The board was notified by myself in November of the corruption with a request for intervention. How can we expect our leadership to protect us from the corruption of the special interest when this is who they serve? There is no amount of transparency that can protect the citizens from corruption with this current board. The average Joe could do a better job because they know how to honor their oath.
Kenneth Piper
MAY 01, 2022  •  Within the last month Commissioner Whitmore had to advise Mr. Hopes that the Commissioners set policy and not Mr. Hopes. The situation involved the purchase of land at the end of Mocassin Wallow and Rt. 301. The County Administrator had never been given authority to conduct those negotiations, and none of the BOCC as the elected officials who set policy knew that those negotiations were being set. Commissioner Baugh is also responsible for policy as one of our elected representatives. To my way of thinking this type of policy recommendation is long overdue and there should have been 6 other commissioners solidly behind her. Lobbying registration is long overdue given the status of development and the obvious communications between government employees and developer emoyees. Issues are being made that need not be made. The Hillsborough ordinance defines lobbyist, it provides discipline for county employees, and it provides criminal penalties for the lobbyist. The questions were not warranted. Let's give credit where credit is due. If lobbying had been defined in Manatee County ordinances, perhaps Ms. Baugh would not have been involved in the ethics complaint she finds herself in. A lobby ordinance protects the county employee as well as the lobbyist. The ultimate beneficiary is the electorate because it makes the conduct of government business more subject to public scrutiny.
Paul Finer
MAY 01, 2022  •  The Commissioner with a pending ethics complaint proposes ethics rules. It is the Twilight Zone also known as Manatee County
Cat Lubin
MAY 01, 2022  •  Something must have happened for this discussion to have taken place. Interesting... This bunch set a certain tone when they fired a major staff member right out of the gate... It's not terribly shocking that there might be a negative culture shift within their work community.
Paul Finer
MAY 01, 2022  •  Deflection.