BRADENTON -- It could have been a scene from the movie ... And Justice for All, only Manatee County Commission Chairman Larry Bustle didn't take home any Academy Awards, just a reprimand from some fellow commissioners, some legal advice from the county attorney and an earful from Manatee County citizens. The sentiment from all: You went too far.
It is no secret that Bustle is not what you'd call a comment friendly chair. He is known to routinely cut the microphones of members of the public who disagree with his positions and abruptly end any commentary that casts one of his political allies in a negative light under the guise of condemning them as "personal attacks." Bustle even tried unsuccessfully to have the already brief limit of three minutes per citizen/per meeting further reduced. At Tuesday's meeting, Bustle reached even further, saying he would ban certain members from giving comment as long as he is chair.
In a couple of locations inside of the BOCC chambers, there are mounted digital countdown clocks with a tiny yellow light that comes on during the last 30 seconds of the allotted three minutes. For a couple of weeks, Bustle had the clerk put the little timer that beeped at the end up to the microphone, sending a piercing noise ecoing through the chambers. However, the three-minute limit is not uniformly enforced and Bustle's reaction to what is being said seems to be a deciding factor.
On Tuesday, Bustle was so disturbed by a stern reprimand directed at the commission by Bill Wheeler for coming up short on their responsibility to county residents, that he only recognized Wheeler among the commenters that had gone past their allotted three minutes to that point.
Bustle was quick to call Wheeler to sit down without letting him finish his statement. Wheeler responded, "When I am done."
Bustle must have taken the 85 year-old Wheeler's slow and measured response as disobedience, because he threatened to turn off Wheeler's microphone and have him removed from the podium. Wheeler, a longtime citizen watchdog and FMCCA officer, replied, "Well, you will just have to do that."
As the female Sheriff's deputy slowly migrated to the front of the dais, softly telling Wheeler that it was time to return to his seat, Wheeler said, "What are you going to do, arrest me?" After putting his hands together in a cuff-like fashion, then extending his escort arm out to the deputy, he and she walked to the back of the room.
Bustle must have seen this as a victory, because from that point on he became Quick Draw McGraw with split-second timer calls and cutting the microphone, then publicly announcing that he would never let Wheeler or fellow regular Linda Neely speak at his dais so long as he was chairman.
Nathan Levinson, one of the lead advocates for "No Kill" spoke of the "illegal retaliation by Animal Services" that resulted in even more dogs being euthanized since the No Kill program began three years ago. When Levinson said the orders must have come from "the top of the chain of command," his microphone was turned off.
During her turn at the podium Neely told Bustle, "You may not like what someone might say up here, but it is our constitutional right." Neely told the commission that their actions were often rude and out of order. Bustle threatened Neely with the kill switch.
Seemingly owed to sheer embarrassment by the spectacle, some other commissioners suggested the chair needed to find another way to deal with calming the crowd. But the commission was just back from a month long vacation and the No Kill issue was one of the passion-driven items that was left hanging over the edge of no resolve when they recessed. The people wanted to be heard.
Commissioners Baugh, Benac and Whitmore did come to the rescue of the incompetence that was being slung at Bustle for not responsibly taking action to address the debacles of the county's Animal Service Department's No Kill program.
All three repeatedly said, "There is nothing we can do until the Sheriff has completed the investigation and gives us the report." Then all three reminded the audience that if they fire someone without the proper grounds, they will be sued, adding again, "We are waiting for the report."
During Commissioner comments, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said, "Well, the Sheriff won't be giving us a report. He will, or won't, arrest someone, and that will be that."
Hunzeker also said "…the States Attorney doesn't give reports either, and neither does the Clerk of the Court." Hunzeker said he talked to Clerk of the Court Chips Shore and that his office had pulled any idea of investigating the matter.
Hunzeker also said that the county has contracted a private company, "one that specializes at these kind of things," to deliver a matrix of where to go from here regarding Animal Services.
Commissioner DiSabatino asked when and how the matrix would be produced. The answer was the commission voted to put an independent investigation together, but the who and when was not voted on.
DiSabatino also inquired to the cost of that independent investigation and Hunzeker responded that it would be $50,000.
Commissioner Whitmore said, "I am the one who has gotten the most criticism, and blame."
It might be noted that Whitmore also received the proclamations and accolades for her efforts as the leading No Kill advocate, yet it has been almost a year since emails of complaints exposing the follies surrounding the No Kill policy. As they say, own the drought, own the flood.
Whitmore also said, "Just because somebody says something on some social media page, we just can't fire someone," mentioning nothing of the hundreds of emails she has received complaining about the horrific conditions over the last year, or the fact that two employees seem to have indeed been fired over the recent YMCA scandal, before the investigation was even handed over to the Sheriff's office.
The next regular meeting of the board is scheduled for Tuesday August 12 at 9 a.m. The board will also convene for a land use meeting on Thursday, August 7.
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