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A Coup Attempt Unravels

At a land use meeting Thursday, an effort by newly-elected Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge to fire Manatee County Administrator Cheri Coryea fell apart, leaving a trail of potential sunshine violations in its wake.

I was supposed to be on vacation this week. In fact, I’d planned to take a long-awaited week off for some time, as is my habit following an election season, and the election-season-like pace of the COVID-19 pandemic had left me even more in need of some downtime by November.

Of course, the ink had barely dried on the new Manatee County Commission members’ election certifications when the plot to oust Coryea materialized, which meant a peaceful week of walking our beaches, kayaking our preserves, and putting the finishing touches on my next book would have to wait until the matter was resolved, probably at a January 6 meeting that had been scheduled to consider Coryea's fate.

However, the ill-advised, special interest-fueled efforts to get rid of a popular and highly-qualified public official for purely political reasons was already facing fierce public backlash when a well-known public records sleuth trained his attention on the matter after noticing that such a seemingly well-coordinated attack seemed a little too well-coordinated.

Following the explosive November 19 meeting, paralegal Michael Barfield thought it likely that at least some of those involved had violated Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law, which prohibits elected local officials from discussing public business outside of an advertised and properly noticed public meeting. Whether or not that turns out to be the case, what Barfield’s public records requests reveal thus far paint a pretty greasy picture, particularly for a crowd that is claiming to drain the swamp.

If you haven’t been following the story, it can be found in two parts, here and here. In summation, Van Ostenbridge–who was elected in November after politically-connected developer Carlos Beruff poured mountains of money into his campaign and even more into dark-money PACs that attacked his opponent–moved to fire Coryea less than 48 hours after having been sworn into office. Beruff had vocally opposed the board’s hiring of Coryea, a 30-plus year veteran of Manatee government and its first female administrator–and made no secrets as to his desire to see her replaced.

Beruff also supported the campaigns of George Kruse and James Satcher–who were also elected on the November ballot–and the three joined incumbent developer-sponsored commissioner Vanessa Baugh to set in motion the 15-day contractual requirement for noticing Coryea regarding a vote on her termination.

Despite the bad optics, in fairness to Kruse, he did hedge his vote at the time by saying that he’d support a fellow commissioner’s motion in order to facilitate a discussion and that he would talk to Coryea, citizens, and other stakeholders before making a decision. Nevertheless, there seemed to be little question that the intent was for the newly-formed big development bloc to carry their paymasters' water and send Coryea packing in favor of someone who’d be more to the liking of the developers who got them into office under the guise of fulfilling their campaign promises to bring forth more conservative governance.

The first round of records that were provided raise some serious red flags in terms of whether violations of sunshine laws were likely to have occurred. You can read more about that here. However, it had also been known that Coryea’s November 19 calendar included a 7:30 a.m. meeting with Van Ostenbridge, during which he’d been rumored to have asked for her resignation. As part of the public records requested of Coryea, her notes from that meeting were turned over to Barfield.

The November 19 meeting was to be a special, non-scheduled gathering of the board that Van Ostenbridge himself had requested, ostensibly to direct the county attorney’s office to research the board’s potential recourse should the Biden administration order some sort of national lockdown (in his comments, the new commissioner did not seem to grasp that such actions had been taken by the state, not the federal government, when Governor DeSantis issued the Safer at Home order in April).

Coryea’s notes and transcripts of communications from Van Ostenbridge to her indicate that the newly-sworn in commissioner asked her to meet for the purpose of discussing the single item on that morning’s agenda and "how things were going so far." Instead, he ambushed her, requesting her resignation on the spot. When Coryea flatly refused, the new commissioner warned her that it didn’t matter because he had the votes, contradicting claims made by himself and the other commissioners that no coordination had taken place. He then, according to Coryea’s notes, threatened to deliberately sell off parcels of the land at a loss in order to embarrass her and the previous board, directly contradicting his already-thin claim that his goal was to protect taxpayer money.

Prior to the meeting Thursday, the public backlash had been loud. Our publication was among several who were receiving the public records associated with citizens weighing in on the matter, more than 9 in 10 of which were in support of Coryea.

That’s the thing about being a newly-elected public official, or even a disengaged incumbent. There aren’t a lot of people who show much interest in the political infighting and partisan pissing matches involving local government on a day to day basis, but when you start threatening to do something as ill-advised as firing the top administrator in a county of 410,000 people before you’ve even had a chance to see how that massive bureaucracy works, you’re likely to get called out by a shockingly-large majority–and tarring them all as libs and RINOs just ain't gonna cut it.

There’s also a danger in hanging around too long in the echo chamber of the political extremists you meet on the town hall campaign stops and mistaking such rhetoric for being the voice of the people just because they’re the ones cheering you on. At the end of the day, those looking to sack Coryea found themselves surrounded by a comparatively-small cadre of angry citizens comprised largely of the same folks who were aghast at the thought of removing a Confederate monument from the grounds of a courthouse and conspiracy theorists who were showing up at board meetings to oppose things like mask requirements during a pandemic because, after all, it’s not about COVID, it’s about compliance.

Coryea’s notes from the meeting, which you can see here, show her providing clear and incontrovertible explanations for each and every part of the county land purchase deal Van Ostenbridge and his developer backers were trying to tar her with so that they could disguise terminating a valuable administrator as an act meant to drain the swamp, rein in big government, and whatever other empty partisan platitudes those in the crowd wanted to chant. Then again, it and just about every other aspect of this shady debacle has also demonstrated that it was never about land acquisition. Ironically, it was about compliance–compliance with the wishes of a special interest, that is.

"We have a leaker"

Included in the almost 80-pages of texts Van Ostenbridge turned over as part of a records request by TBT Publisher Joe McClash, were two threads with someone named Carlos whose contact initials read CB, suggesting it was the commissioner’s political sponsor (he also references having left a voicemail with "Samantha," the first name of Beruff’s executive assistant at Medallion Homes).

"CB" sent Van Ostenbridge a Word document titled "ManCo BOCC" that wasn’t provided in the records request response, to which the commissioner responded, "That looks good. I only want to drop the mention of masks. That is too much of a 50/50 issue." The idea that a politically-connected developer who poured money into a candidate's campaign would be sending such direct suggestions to that elected official not only raises serious red flags but again makes a mockery out of the notion that the intent is to drain the swamp rather than elevate it from influence to direct control.

In a later exchange, Van Ostenbridge sends Beruff a link to my November 15 column, in which I predicted that the new majority was attempting to manufacture outrage over the land deal specifically to build opposition against Coryea in order to fire her in favor of Beruff’s preferred candidate. The text accompanying the link reads, "We have a leaker," further suggesting that the move was not only pre-orchestrated but directed by the developer himself. Van Ostenbridge adds, "Good thing no one reads this rag," to which CB responds, "Who cares liberal rag."

Part of a text thread between Commissioner Van Ostenbridge (blue bubble) and "Carlos B" (white text).

For the record, there was no leaker. Whether Van Ostenbridge or the others realize it, Beruff's aversion to Coryea as Ed Hunzeker's replacement and the developer's desire to have Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance CEO Dom DiMaio installed as Manatee County Administrator–before anyone had ever taken exception with the Lena Road land deal–was an open secret known to just about anyone who follows Manatee County politics, let alone the longtime editor of a local newspaper for which the county commission is a primary focus.

In fact, I had been given it on background at the time by multiple first-hand sources while covering Coryea's hiring. Once I discovered that Beruff and his cronies were helping to fund the disinformation campaign on the land purchase, it wasn't hard to guess that the gaslighting of the issue was for the benefit of going after Coryea once a board dominated by developer-sponsored commissioners took office.

In the text thread, Van Ostenbridge later informs Carlos B that the special meeting had been set, adding that "Carol" (presumably Commission chair Carol Whitmore) "took the bait," which would seem to refer to Van Ostenbridge successfully lobbying for the meeting under a false pretense in order to ambush Coryea. Prior to the meeting with Coryea in which Van Ostenbridge would ask for her resignation, "CB" texts again, asking, "you all set?" to which the commissioner responds, "All set."

There are some other insightful revelations, including an exchange with someone named Rodney (under the initials RO), asking about when the new board would be bringing up restoring the Confederate monument to the courthouse. Van Ostenbridge responds that there’s too much racial tension at present. He indicates that he would vote for such a motion if someone else made it but probably wouldn’t bring it up himself until the summer.

The person responds that James (presumably Commissioner Satcher) ran on the issue and that while a lot of supporters are expecting it to be brought up right away they could buy some time by at least moving to have the repairs begin on the obelisk, which was damaged during its journey from the courthouse grounds to storage, where it has remained. It seems the county has been unable to find a willing recipient in the Gamble Plantation or other suggested sites, all of whom have proven disinterested in hosting a monument to secession that was donated to the county a hundred years ago by a group that supported and heroified the KKK.

Someone listed as Jaime (under the initials JS) shares a social media post from citizen activist Glen Gibellina suggesting to Van Ostenbridge’s opponent in the November race, fellow Republican Matt Bower, that he apply for an upcoming seat on the county’s affordable housing advisory board. Van Ostenbridge responds, "Over my dead body," adding that he would "keep kicking him as long as he had breath in his lungs" and that "If he wanted a consolation prize he should have taken it 6 months ago when it was offered."

What is meant by this statement? Did Van Ostenbridge or one of his benefactors offer his political opponent another position or thing of value if he didn’t run in the District 3 commission race? You can see the entire record of the texts here (warning: contains profanity).

Kruse provides swing vote

Near the end of a marathon land-use meeting Thursday, Commissioner Kruse shocked the other three when he exercised his right as a board member who’d voted in favor of an item at the last scheduled meeting to bring it back up for reconsideration at the next, as per Rober's Rules of Order and the BOCC policy and procedures. Kruse said that he had indeed taken the time to talk to Coryea, constituents, staff members, mayors within the county, and various other elected officials and did not think it wise to remove her at this time.

Kruse said that while he ran as an "agent of change," he did not run as an "agent of chaos" and could find no benefit to burning half his term in the firing, search, hiring, and everything else that goes into replacing the head of such a large enterprise, even if it might put the board at a "better square one" at that time. The commissioner said he felt that he could work with Coryea and that it was the best way available to him in terms of advancing his agenda.

A clearly miffed Van Ostenbridge complained that the board was apparently not as conservative as he thought and later accused Kruse of flip-flopping in a social media post. He added that the board, which is comprised of six Republicans and one Democrat, is not led by a conservative majority after all, promising that he would continue to govern as the true conservative he campaigned as.

Meanwhile, the echo of those rejoicing over the fact that Kruse seemed to have found the courage to make the difficult decision to do what he felt was right while knowing that it was going to anger some of his supporters and fellow commissioners–not to mention his top political benefactor–can still be heard as emails supporting the decision continue to pour in.

It is very difficult in today’s political reality to get elected in Manatee County without taking the dirty needle of developer campaign cash and support from their attack-ad PACs–just ask Bower. However, it’s not all that much easier to swim in those waters and retain your independence as an elected official afterward. Kruse’s predecessor, the recently-retired Betsy Benac, also received a lot of support from Beruff when she won her first term in 2012. However, despite Benac, a former planner, being about as pro-development as a commissioner can get, when the rubber met the road on Beruff’s Aqua by the Bay/Long Bar Pointe project, it was she that used her knowledge of land use to disagree with the county’s own planners and point out the elements of the proposal that simply were not in compliance with Manatee County’s comprehensive land-use plan. Former Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino earned a reputation of independence after coming to the board awash with developer campaign cash as well.

For his part, Kruse brings a very interesting resume to the commission along with a temperament and communication skills that suggest a level of leadership potential that could benefit the board as a whole. It would be a shame to see that skill set wasted on servitude to special interests, particularly to an industry that already gets nearly everything it could possibly want in Manatee County where it's hard to imagine it getting any easier to build houses, even when planned development runs afoul of county rules. Here’s to hoping that Kruse will remain an independent thinker on critical issues going forward, even when that runs afoul of those who can give him headaches come reelection time.
As for the rest of that crew, we shall see how things shake out once Barfield gets through with them, but I suspect that there will be additional fallout. Barfield told me on Friday that while he was still waiting on portions of his records requests to be fulfilled, he was nonetheless shocked by what he'd already learned–a strong statement considering the litany of public records cases he's been involved with over the years.

Barfield explained that while he wasn't sure that there would be a good reason to continue with the case after Thursday's rescission of Van Ostenbridge's previous motion, the information contained in the records request thus far removed any doubts about whether there was merit in going forward.

"It's very clear that this is how these people operate," said Barfield. "And if you don't hold elected officials accountable when they violate sunshine laws, they tend to get smarter about avoiding the ways they're most likely to get caught, but the behavior continues."

At the very least, it seems likely that we will continue to learn more about who’s pulling the strings when the self-styled real conservatives are raising their hands to vote. Hopefully, those with their pitchforks out will eventually draw the obvious conclusion that rather than draining the swamp, they’ve unwittingly been following the swamp monsters the whole time, blindly doing their bidding in a movement that gives new meaning to the term political irony.

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 governmentsince 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. Clickherefor his bio. Dennis's latest novel, Sacred Hearts, is availablehere.


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