BRADENTON -- The Manatee County Board of Commissioners giveth, and the Board of Commissioners taketh away.
That was the odd and innovative lesson of a marathon public hearing Tuesday in which the divided board considered a fertilizer ordinance that brought out dozens of supporters on each side.
It also brought out some politics, too. A woman who is a local Democratic official, came to the microphone during the public comments period and noted that Commissioner Robin DiSabatino received the maximum allowable contribution of $500 from Mosaic, the world's largest fertilizer company.
Mary Duda also said that the Republican Executive Committee of Manatee County (REC) got $5,000 each year for the past five years. Very softly, even as she was walking away from the mic, she turned around and said, "From Mosaic." County records show the REC got that sum each year for the last three years, and a total of $15,000, and that DiSabatino got $500 last year. In the end, none of it did fertilizer salesmen much good.
Six of the seven commissioners are Republicans; the lone exception is attorney Michael Gallen, who like DiSabatino, was just elected last fall.
When it came to time to consider the measure, DiSabatino said she was offended by the implicit suggestion that she would vote for a measure based on her contributions. Nonetheless, she supplied the critical swing vote in a 4-3 decision that turned the proposed ordinance into county law. She was opposed by Commissioners Joe McClash, Michael Gallen and John Chappie.
Commissioner Donna Hayes, who represents lawn-rich Lakewood Ranch, also took a slap at Duda's comment. "I don't even know what [donor] she was talking about," said Hayes, a lifelong Republican. An attempt by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch to submit a motion that would have permitted its use was also defeated 4-3. One element of that motion fell short of the less-restrictive state standard, officials said.
The funny thing was that a victory for representatives of the fertilizer companies who appeared at the 4-hour hearing was at best a Pyrrhic one.
In talks after the meeting recessed, it became clear that some of the winners and losers didn't understand the outcome. The pro-fertilizer forces had defeated a section of the law that is not modeled on the state's model ordinance, adopted earlier this year. Unique to Manatee County, the county ordinance would have banned the sale during the four-month rainy season of fertilizer containing nitrogen and phosphorus, ingredients implicated in the formation of algae blooms, fish kills, deteriorating water quality, and red tide -- and universally available from Mosaic. Such a ban is now law in Pinellas County.
But when the smoke cleared after dinner time and the board took a break, the same forces were not happy. One professional fertilizer user said, "Why would I be happy? I don't buy my fertilizer at Wal-Mart." Indeed, many bulk users of the nitrogen-phosphorus and so-called slow-release nitrogen (SNR) such as turf farms are exempt from the entire law.
What made the pro-fertilizer group unhappy was that even though retail sale of the fertilizer was left legal, the use of it was not. So Manatee County gardeners can buy the product, but during June through the end of September, they are not allowed to use it. Its use is subject to a fine.
Commissioners John Chappie, Joe McClash and Michael Gallen voted against an amendment that took the retail ban out of the measure because, they said, it was the only way to call attention to the issue through education.
"Education, education, education," Chappie urged.
"The ban is education," Gallen emphasized.
The board was confronted by a state law that took away its right to ban the retail sale of the controversial fertilizer during summer months unless it enacted the ban by July 1.
The ban on retail sales didn't survive, but a motion to reconsider the decision didn't either. After a short break was ordered by a weary commission chair, Carol Whitmore, Hayes came back and said she wanted the vote adopting the new ordinance reconsidered.
She got a second, but her motion failed.