County Land Deal Gets Machiavellian in Runup to Election

Dennis Maley
In last week’s column, I detailed a strange phenomenon about an effort to derail a recently-approved county land purchase that was being driven by a dark-money PAC whose donors had been obscured by a convoluted web of financial transactions between various political action committees. Earlier this week, rumors started swirling that the deal for land upon which an east county operations center would be built would be revisited by the county commission during Tuesday’s meeting. The rumors proved true and what happened at the meeting solved at least some of the mystery as to who is behind the manufactured outrage. The parties involved will likely come as no surprise to those who follow Manatee County politics.

You can read more about the deal here or the PAC here. In brief summary, the county has been in negotiations to purchase a massive parcel of former dairy farmland adjacent to the Lena Road landfill from the Musgrave family for the past 18 months. The $32.5 million purchase for 161 acres would allow the county to extend the life of the landfill by at least six years and prevent it from having to either use the third trench for a transfer station or build one elsewhere, saving the county around $75 million. It will also house a future operations center that will include a facility for the public works department, utility field infrastructure, fleet support services, and a new east-county Manatee County Sheriff’s Department station.

As I’ve noted previously, even if the county could have gotten the land for a little less (and there’s no evidence whatsoever that it could have), there are numerous ways in which purchasing such a large parcel of optimally-located land benefits both the county and its citizens going forward. Furthermore, solving all of those challenges piecemeal would have undoubtedly cost taxpayers more money. As regular readers of my column know, I’ve never been shy about calling out either commissioners or the county administration for bad policy, especially when it needlessly costs taxpayers. So I was genuinely curious who was behind the effort to spend thousands of dollars to rile up the community over a deal that seemed to easily pass the smell test.

I suspected it had to do with politically-connected developers, as there hadn’t been any grassroots reaction to the project, and the two current county commission candidates who’d been carrying the water—George Kruse and Kevin Van Ostenbridge—are heavily-backed by Medallion Homes founder and CEO Carlos Beruff. The two sitting commissioners who voted against authorizing the deal—Vanessa Baugh and Stephen Jonsson—were also elected on developer-backed campaigns and are reliable votes on such matters. Still, the convoluted nature of the PAC that funded an ad campaign which seems to have tens of people across the county up in arms, made it hard to know who was pulling what strings until Pat Neal and son showed up to provide a bit of clarity.

Neal and his son Michael gave public comment urging the commission to reconsider the motion on the grounds of fiscal responsibility, a particularly rich notion given that Neal has been all too happy to be paid questionable amounts by the county for his land on deals like Neal Preserve on Perico Island or, more recently, land acquired for another preserve on the Braden River. It became clear during the meeting that at least some of the commissioners who’d voted in favor of the deal had been approached by Neal after the vote, presumably to gauge who’d be open to bringing it up for reconsideration—which can only be done by someone who’d voted in favor of an action and only at the next meeting (though not to revoke a contract that had already been executed).

One of the interested parties apparently found a willing accomplice in Commissioner Misty Servia, who was also elected on a mountain of campaign cash from development interests. Servia, a former planner who did work for Beruff in the private sector, is usually notably articulate and detailed when it comes to major actions. On Tuesday, however, she sheepishly made a dispassionate motion for reconsideration over newfound concerns for "the county's ability to fund the purchase of the property and whether or not the conditions of the property allow for the county's intended uses," an about-face from her previous position when she seemed to vote comfortably in favor of the action last time around.

One more vote and the interested parties would have had their majority, and first-term District 2 Commissioner Reggie Bellamy seemed to be who they were looking at. But Bellamy wasn’t having it. The commissioner, who represents a district challenged by a disproportionate concentration of the county’s blight and poverty and arguably an undersized share of its resources, wasn’t swayed by suggestions that money spent in the deal might otherwise benefit his constituents. He coyly said that he hoped such sudden concern for his district lasted beyond the issue before asking that District 2 not be used as a pawn in other battles. 

Commissioners Carol Whitmore, Priscilla Trace, and Betsy Benac joined Bellamy to give the board a 4-3 majority in rejecting Servia’s motion. Benac, who had been a planner with both the county and in the public sector before being elected in 2012 and is not running for reelection, took aim at both Kruse and Van Ostenbridge in very pointed comments during the debate that followed the motion, noting that if you wanna sit on the dais, you've got to do your homework before shooting a number of holes in their claims while giving a very concise and coherent rebuttal that you can see below.

It's also worth noting that Servia, who is usually one of the most prepared and engaged commissioners on the board, also bent herself into a pretzel justifying a vote that swung the commission in favor of a rezoning that will allow a new Cox auto dealership to be built on a relatively small piece of flood-prone East county land for a project that was wildly unpopular with surrounding residents who worried that the existing infrastructure did not support something so incompatible with the community. It was telling that it was again Benac—the other former county and public sector planner on the board—who gave the perfectly-articulated argument as to why it shouldn't be approved in her dissenting vote. It speaks to the difficulty many voters have in supporting even the most well-intended candidates after they take the dirty needle of developer largesse to get elected, especially when they plan to run for reelection. 

Whatever the motivation of those who are intent on queering the county's land purchase, it doesn’t seem to be fiscal prudence. Perhaps someone else wants to purchase and develop the land, or perhaps it’s part of some other feud or competing interests. It’s also no secret that some in the development community were not pleased with the ascension of three-decade county administration veteran Cheri Coryea to the role of county administrator, having preferred an outside candidate who, if not of their choosing, would at least be someone they were able to weigh in on heavily. Is manufacturing this issue an attempt to be able to use it as a wedge for the next board to vote Coryea out at the end of her contract, or perhaps even sooner?

Again, the whole debacle highlights the problems associated with so many commissioners getting hooked on developer cash themselves, or being influenced by the threat of it being used against them the next time around. The lengths to which several of the dissenting votes went to stipulate their respect and admiration for the developers themselves on Tuesday spoke to just how much power and influence they wield, and, so far in this election cycle, they look poised to only expand leverage with Kruse having all but won the seat Benac is vacating after the write-in loophole was again used to close off the race to two developer-backed Republican candidates in what should have been an open primary.

In District 1, James Satcher enjoys a significant voter demographic advantage over Democrat Dominique Brown. Satcher received financial backing from the Neals and related interests following his upset victory of Trace—who herself upset Beruff’s hand-chosen candidate to win the seat last term—in August’s Republican primary.

In district 3, Van Ostenbridge also got help from the write-in loophole and would have been in a closed primary had fellow Republican Matt Bower not made an 11th-hour decision to switch to a No Party Affiliation run in the general election, opening the race up to more than 20,000 additional independent and Democratic voters who would have been shut out from participating in the election of their representative on the board. 

Van Ostenbridge bragged of having "championed" the opposition to the land deal on Tuesday, and more attack ads were sent out against Bower this week, alleging he’d been fired from the Manatee Planning Commission—a volunteer board that gives advisory recommendations to the BOCC on development applications—because he was anti-jobs. Ironically, it references a TBT article. Yes, Bower was voted off of that board by a majority of county commissioners, but only because of pressure from developers who didn’t want him asking tough questions on applications that didn’t comply with county rules and regulations. You can read all about what actually happened here.

This issue crystalizes that particular race and county politics in general. Bower has a long history of involvement in the issues that come before the county commission going back to 2013 when he fought to prevent the dredging of the bay and other egregious aspects of Beruff’s initial proposal for Long Bar Pointe, which was the basis of his appointment to the planning commission in the first place. He’s run a grassroots campaign and kept his pledge to focus on issues and avoid the negative slandering of his opponent—who has a 10:1 financial advantage in addition to more money from attack-ad PACs and no such record of activism on such issues before being handpicked to run as Jonsson's replacement. 

It’s clear why developers want candidates like Kruse and Van Ostenbridge to take the seats of Benac and Jonsson, and it should also be clear why citizens in the West Bradenton/AMI district should want Bower representing their interests. Anyone who thinks that developers are treated unfairly in Manatee County and need even more representation on the board clearly hasn't been paying attention. The BOCC has for too long been a rubber stamp when it comes to land development. That won’t change in this election, but if developers manage a clean sweep in the three races on the ballot Tuesday, that rubber stamp will likely get soaked with another decade’s worth of ink.

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
Barbara Elliott
NOV 03, 2020  •  Twice I called the election office in Manatee to inquire about an open primary in Manatee. Twice I was told that there's no open primary in Florida. Your article states the write in candidates loophole closed the 2020 open primary here. Did the elections office lie to me? I know you didn't lie Mr. Maley. Unlike Trump, I believe reporters strive for the truth and to document it. I still would like to show you the political mailers I received that lack the required disclosure statements. Thanks for what you do.
Barbara Elliott
NOV 02, 2020  •  Mr. Maley, I would like to show you some dark money political flyers I received in my mailbox. They have NO disclaimers.
Al Horrigan
NOV 01, 2020  •  Dennis, I wholeheartedly agree with you we need Matt Bower on the BOCCC. Matt is the only Emergency Break we have to slow the runaway Board. Unfortunately, you lost your right to moan over George Kruze. Between you and an old political grudge your publisher Joe McClash had with Ed Hunzeker you two helped elect Beruff’s pawn so quit whining. The old saying is if you don't vote don't complain and if you helped elect the wrong guy wait 4 years and do something about it then but we don't need to hear you whining about the guy you helped elect during the interim. He's in your bed sleep with him.
NOV 01, 2020  •  Citizens please watch the meetings for yourself.  It is an eye opening experience.  The only person running that I have ever seen attend a meeting and speak for the rights of the citizens in our community is Matt Bower.  He has been supporting our rights regularly over the past 4 years.