County Employees Decry Declining Culture and Trust

Dawn Kitterman
MANATEE COUNTY — Manatee County Government has changed according to some personnel. From its reorganization and staff turnover to its overall culture, several county employees shared with TBT reasons why morale among employees has been at a low.

County employees who spoke with TBT requested that their names be withheld for fear of reprisals. 

Comments made by County Administrator Scott Hopes at a March team leadership meeting provided insights into the culture shift that has taken place inside the organization since Hopes was hired. Anyone who has watched a county commission meeting in recent months has likely already heard both vague and not-so-vague references to a negative atmosphere or climate within the organization. 

County commissioners have shared in BOCC meetings their individual awareness of changes in communication, and who should speak to whom, or who should have access to the 9th floor, among other concerns. At least one commissioner has acknowledged on the record a culture that includes "fear of retaliation" should an employee speak openly about work-related concerns. 

At least one long-time employee resigned from her management position citing in her resignation email a "volatile and hostile" work environment. 

In what can only be described as unprecedented, more than a half dozen individuals agreed to speak with TBT, provided that their names would not be used in publication. Several who attended a March team leadership meeting shared their firsthand accounts of comments made by the county administrator during the meeting. 

The majority of those who agreed to speak expressed discomfort in the decision to do so, many of them making similar statements such as, "This goes against anything I would have ever considered doing in my professional career to this point."  

"I have never spoken of my employer outside of the workplace like this, ever, until now," said another source. "What is typical, is that any concerns or complaints would be handled internally through appropriate processes and channels, but there is a lack of resource or trust to be able to do so anymore." 
 
The county has been without a Human Resources director since August of 2021, and the most recent hire for the role left the position after just three weeks. The departure was not shared with the public until a somewhat recent BOCC meeting, and based on comments made by commissioners in the May 1 meeting, some commissioners were not informed immediately of the position’s vacancy when it occurred. 

All of the individuals who spoke with TBT stated that the reason they agreed to do so was because of increasing concerns and a desire to "bring to light" what they perceive as declining morale and the overall quality of the culture within the organization.  

Several sources offered that they did not feel as though they were being "personally targeted"—although they acknowledged some employees and positions likely do have cause to feel that way. Rather, they referenced the overall morale and culture as the most immediate factor playing a role in whether they will continue as an employee of the county, and for how much longer. 

One employee told TBT that their concerns about the amount of "institutional knowledge" resigning or having been removed from the organization in the last year was a significant factor in agreeing to speak with TBT. "Keeping quiet about things isn't helping, it isn't going to bring any change to this. By agreeing to speak with you, I can at least tell myself that I tried to do something."

TBT verified through public records that each of the sources who spoke to us regarding the leadership meeting held at the Bradenton Area Convention Center on March 16 had been in attendance. 

A team leadership meeting is held quarterly, and only employees of management-level positions attend. The nearly 100 attendees included employees who serve as deputy administrators, department directors, deputy directors, division supervisors, and division managers, as well as the county administrator. 

"Change isn’t a bad thing, but not all change is good either," said one interviewee. "Information has become centralized, and that is not a compliment, it is not an improvement, it is a hindrance," they added. 

Recent comments by Administrator Hopes to leadership employees illustrated the restriction and "control" of information that is taking place within the organization, sources said. 

Those who spoke to TBT corroborated with their independent firsthand accounts that Hopes suggested to employees at the leadership meeting that employees should not watch County Commission meetings while at work. Sources alleged employees were told something to the effect of "watching the meetings was not worth their while." 

While none of the sources felt they could directly quote the exact words Hopes used to categorize the content of the meetings, they offered similar from-memory suggestions representing the overall nature of the descriptors Hopes may have used, including "theatrical" "soap opera" or "a joke." 

Several sources understood the administrator to suggest that watching the meetings could lead to employees becoming confused, misunderstanding information, or receiving out-of-context information. Information shared in commission meetings can be incomplete because the detailed discussions take place "behind closed doors."

One source told TBT, "He didn’t want what we heard in the meetings to get us riled up, basically."  

The majority of those who spoke with TBT also stated the reason given for the suggestion was that employees should be "focused on doing their jobs" and not on the bigger picture of government happenings. There exists an understanding among some who heard the comments that watching the meetings would result in "distraction" rather than receiving useful information. 

For several years, and under prior administrations, TV monitors have been available within county department offices and workspaces. Employees have regularly streamed the BOCC meetings. Some sources who spoke to TBT included that, to their knowledge, there were never any previous concerns about employees not being able to effectively "do their work" with a BOCC meeting running in the background. 

There are at least two valid reasons, sources shared, that employees would regularly have the live streaming meetings playing as they worked. One reason is to stay up to date and have access to information on business conducted in the meetings, something sources told us is increasingly desired by employees with the perceived restriction, or constriction, of information, as well as changes taking place in the organization. Many employees turn to the BOCC meetings to understand what changes have occurred or are set to occur. 

The other reason was related to specific agenda items. When an item is to come before the board and is relevant to a specific department or department division, county leadership would be watching the meetings as they occurred, prepared to report to chambers should there be a question or information that would need to be answered by staff most familiar with the subject or project. 

All who spoke with TBT acknowledged that Hopes’ comments were stated more as a suggestion than a directive—though two individuals who spoke with TBT shared that at least one department director took this suggestion back to their staff in the form of a directive. 

There was not only consensus among those who spoke with TBT about the specific comment made by Hopes relating to employees and their watching BOCC meetings, but there was also overwhelming consensus as to what was widely believed to have spawned the suggestion at all. 

On March 1, during a BOCC special meeting, Hopes detailed to commissioners the progress he had made in his reorganization of the county government. During the special meeting, Hopes told the board that the Department of Redevelopment and Economic Opportunity (REO) would be dissolved. Hopes also stated that the director’s position for that department was reclassified to become a senior financial analyst position within a different department. 

However, this information had not been communicated to employees prior to the special meeting, and more specifically had not been communicated to employees within REO itself, including department leadership, sources said. 

The fall-out of the announcement resulted in at least one employee immediately seeking employment elsewhere under the assumption that their role would be terminated along with the elimination of the REO, and, sometime not long after, another employee also resigned. 

Each of the sources seemed clear on this as fact and claimed to either have firsthand knowledge of the happenings or close-to-the-source secondhand knowledge. There was no material differentiation among the accounts shared with TBT on this point.

Sources alleged that the intended disbanding of REO and reclassification of an REO department leadership position lacked any prior communication outside of the March 1 special meeting. 

Sources stated that it was their perspective that the actual context for the comments made in the March team leadership meeting by the administrator was due to the "fall-out" which came from the previously unannounced and uncommunicated information being shared in a BOCC meeting as employees watched live. Sources said the announcement of the elimination of REO resulted in some employee confusion and dissatisfaction with the lack of professional or courteous communication, and ultimately the resignation of at least two county employees. 

A handful of the individuals who spoke with TBT stated it was their perception that Hopes’ suggestion that employees should not watch the BOCC meetings going forward was to "control information" and how employees would receive it, to avoid such occurrences in the future. 

In addition to the comments made about the board meetings, several of the sources who spoke to TBT shared similar accounts of other comments they allege they heard at the leadership meeting—remarks they felt were inappropriate and/or unprofessional. 

"He spoke as though it was his perception that the commissioners believed they should be a priority to him," one individual stated referring to comments made by the administrator. "He said a few were requesting meetings with him. But that he (Hopes) has other more pressing priorities, and commissioners aren't necessarily his main priority," they added. 

Another shared, "Hopes made some comment to the effect that commissioners get information that he feels they need to know and it came across as though the commissioners were something like a hassle or inconvenience to his doing his job." 

And another offered their general impression based on what Hopes said to employees in the leadership meeting, "The impression I got was that basically, he saw himself as needing to babysit the commissioners or something like that."

While none of the above statements were identical, and the majority who spoke with TBT acknowledged that the leadership meeting had been held more than two months prior leaving them unable to provide direct quotes of what exactly may have been said aside from the suggestion for employees to stop watching BOCC meetings while at work, all who spoke with TBT shared similar impressions that they were left with after attending the leadership meeting. 

Sources that had familiarity with leadership meetings under previous administrations described to TBT how the meetings have changed in the last year under the new administration. Previously, leadership meetings were held in a meeting room, and employees were grouped together at tables while the administrator would circulate the room and interact with the employee groups. Messaging at the leadership meetings was related to annual goals set by the administrator and approved by the commission. 

At leadership meetings, updates were provided by the staff and administration who were working on the set goals. Leadership employees were encouraged to ask questions, make suggestions, and were invited to provide feedback to the "team." A topic might be presented, update presentations shared, team-building exercises introduced, or employee recognitions would be made. 

Sources told TBT that the leadership meetings are now held in an auditorium with employees seated in the audience while the administrator speaks to them from a stage. 

Several sources stated that the new "culture" created under the current administration from their perspective, lacks a "team" perspective and an identified "goal" component. They indicated that the culture is one where employees are left feeling they are on a "need-to-know" basis and most expressed frustration with the lack of access to information. At least one source described feeling as though employees were not valued or respected, and that while "loyalty was expected" they did not feel it was given in return. 

The administration is clear in its desire that all messaging coming from the organization should be cohesive, but without a clearly stated goal, many employees are left wondering what they are working toward, or for. 

"It’s difficult to be passionate about the work I do when the goals are unclear, unidentified, and information is restricted and is lacking a team element," said one employee.

TBT reached out to Bill Logan, Manatee County PIO, and requested comment or clarity on some of the statements made by employees about Hopes’ comments during the March leadership meeting. 

TBT specifically inquired about the administrator’s statements related to employees not watching BOCC meetings, the statement concerning "discussions taking place behind closed doors" that might not be included in information communicated in a BOCC meeting, and the administrator’s alleged comments which alluded to his perception that the commissioners believed they should be prioritized, or believe they are (or should be) the most important priority in the total of the administrator's responsibilities. 

Logan replied via email, writing, "Employees were asked, 'not to watch the Board meetings during their workday unless it was part of their job responsibilities!' they certainly can watch the recordings or live meetings on their own time." 

If the statements of employees who attended the March leadership meeting are accurate, and what they each decided to share with TBT anonymously is a fair overall perception of the nature of the comments made by the administrator, it raises questions as to how much the public can rely on BOCC meetings to receive accurate and complete information—or whether information shared with the public is as restricted and/or incomplete as it allegedly is inside of the organization.

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

CLICK ON ICONS TO SHARE
Reader Comments
Scott Woodworth
MAY 23, 2022  •  I hate to say I told you so... Based on some of the attention I've gotten from the SEC / DOE and others I'd say you are going to see Hopes & Co. go the way of corduroy pants. Those who thought an airport runway adjacent school fronted by renowned businessman DouglasColkitt was a good idea will also be gone soon. Can we get an update, Mitch?
I'm surprised that I'm surprised.
MAY 22, 2022  •  Wow… he's like one of those people that but a perfectly good company and then destroy it with their egos. If he doesn't have a personality disorder, I will be amazed… Does Manatee counties budget overage relate to losing so many staff members?
Adam
MAY 22, 2022  •  I am a former employee that recently resigned do to the hypocrisy and lack of integrity and some personality conflicts that could have been avoided with proper leadership! The spending on such ridiculous items went on at a whim. no mater how big or small it was atrocious, they want to change /upgrade software systems and then after the fact it doesn’t work correctly or doesn’t conform with other county systems and now more waste! It’s a debacle and this new board is unprecedentedly the most corrupt in my experience, what happened to voting your mind and heart and what will benefit the people! Not benefit the land developers that line the newbies pockets! Fact check it, top contributors to all the newbies is a developer! They promote an ACE workplace, Accountability, Civility, Ethics! That in itself is a joke county wide, there are many quality employees that give there all and then there are the “others”!
Richard Correnti
MAY 22, 2022  •  It doesn't take much executive experience or organizational insight to understand it was only a matter of time until the true character of DR Hopes shown through. Anyone who self promotes as much as he did in Manatee County, and beyond, for years, should have seen this coming. Unfortunately, the new inexperienced Commissioners, led by KVO, are more interested in control, blind allegiance, authoritarianism and MAGA slogans than sound and responsible administration,...which requires truth,...and TRUST!! In our land of the Circus, we should understand "you can fool some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all of the time." A "well oiled" organization requires open and clear communication and putting egos aside to achieve goals for the common good. Angry letters back and forth certainly won't achieve that, just like getting rid of Cheri Coryea didn't. And here the citizens of our County are now in a cauldron boiling over with incompetent leadership at BOTH the administrative,...and Board level. Doesn't project much HOPE! No pun intended!
Ken Piper
MAY 22, 2022  •  People forget that there was a culture which existed prior to Scott Hopes. If you have ever viewed a BOCC meeting, you would have discovered a sickening devotion to the staff by the BOCC and vice versa. A culture had already developed of a "we versus them" mentality as far as the public was concerned. If anything at least a few commissioners did not like to be the victim of a "we versus them" mentality when Mr. Hopes made his changes. The problem with both of these mindsets is that the public is not the enemy and the ultimate loyalty is to the public and not to either the BOCC or the County Administrator. Development Services is the worst example of a department who treats the public as the enemy. The most recent example was people with small farms being threatened with special use permits who had opposed the Midieval Faire. This was pure and simple thuggery aimed against the public. This particular department abuses the rights of the public with every development hearing due to an all too close relationship with developers and their staff. No matter which culture you choose this relationship must be reigned in with facilitation of input from the public as the first master. There is one other culture which has stood out from my six years attending BOCC meetings. A couple of years ago a resolution was introduced by Misty Servia to approve the Equal Rights Amendment. There were a majority of females on the Board at the time as well as a female Administrator. Each female commissioner shared with us their past history of sexual discrimination. At the conclusion the statement was made, "We are in charge now." That type of favoritism should not exist for either sex against the other. To a certain extent that battle continues to be fought in the most recent ongoing battles of the board.
Diana
MAY 22, 2022  •  Why are the sources unnamed? Look no further than what they did to the whistleblower, the volunteer David Daniels, and countless other citizens and employees who outed what was and is continuing to go on at the county at the hands of those in charge. This administration will drag you down in the mud while making up lies and then follow up with a sham of an investigation blaming them. Those who file civil suits because it is their only alternative are costing the taxpayers of this county millions, look no further than the payout coming up this week. The only thing Hopes has ever wanted is to be in control of absolutely everything, even the Commissioners. He belittles them at meetings to their face. His contract should not be renewed.
Kristina Skepton
MAY 22, 2022  •  Indeed, it is a soap opera - A bad one at that AND one WE are paying for.
Doug Egger
MAY 22, 2022  •  Hopes is one of only 2 people employed directly by the County Commission; the other being the Secretary to the Commissioners. They (Commissioners) need to sit this guy down and remind him just who works for whom. They need to shape him up or ship him out.
Nikki Velazquez
MAY 22, 2022  •  Bravo to those who spoke up. It's not easy to risk your livelihood and career to take a stand for what is right.
JANET RAGGI
MAY 22, 2022  •  Sounds like a whiney soap opera to me. And I love all the 'unsourced' sources. Sounds like the wimps are weepy.
James J. Troxler
MAY 22, 2022  •  This is truly a worrisome situation. The writer uses significant effort to veil what seems to be the underlying message. Mr Hopes seems to be at the center of an effort to hide activity of upper management not just from the county work force but the public as well. It can be assumed that employees are mainly citizens of Manatee County as well as voters. The current administration seems to be trying to hide activity from the real employers, Manatee County citizens. I detected a sense of veiled threat felt by the comments provided. If county government is evolving into a dictatorship to benefit a certain few this must be rooted out and the rats fed what rats deserve.
Charlene
MAY 22, 2022  •  Here comes the witch hunt to find out who spoke up. The electorate needs to wake up and start putting in better people into office, to prevent this mess.


FACEBOOK COMMENT POSTING AND VIEWING BELOW