Reflections of Manatee, Inc. is a not-for-profit focused on preserving a very historical area along the Manatee River. Their dedication to this is admirable. Scraping together resources, they have done what most people thought to be impossible: preserve a piece of old Florida and what could be the most historically significant piece of Bradenton's beginnings.
However, now they have to fight their own city, which is suing them to undo the transfer of property it approved under the oversight of Mayor Bill Evers. The suit, initiated by current Mayor Wayne Poston, seems a senseless waste of city resources and precious tax dollars.
The city transferred property to Reflections of Manatee by a resolution in 1998, with full discussion by the Bradenton City Council after three meetings. The past council members, along with Mayor Evers himself, have written statements verifying the intent of the transfer. Still, Mayor Poston initiated the suit, claiming that the city never intended to transfer the whole property in the deed. The suit has continued for years and the tiny organization has to do battle with the nearly unlimited legal resources a city can throw around.
Poston's second guessing of the intent of the previous council should send off red flags. The property is next to a prime piece of real estate. Over the years, developers (with the help of the city) have put pressure on landowners in order to force them to sell. Code enforcement would continuously cite property owners for frivolous violations until they'd had enough and figured they could no longer fight city hall.
Not so for Trudy and Jeff Williams, who head up Reflections of Manatee, Inc. Their mission is too important to them. They have battled for over four years to fend off a senseless suit. Most governments embrace a not-for-profit doing something that the city itself would, or at least should be doing. Some have suggested that the city of Bradenton’s motives go beyond correcting title and include helping another developer.
The city has a poor track record for providing parks, most of which are operated by the county or another not-for-profit like the 13th Avenue Dream Center. City hall definitely does not have a strong track record in preserving its history. In fact, much more enthusiasm and leadership for the preservation of our community’s history has come from Clerk of the Circuit Court, Chips Shore.
The suit has caused Reflections of Manatee to lose a grant from the federal government for millions of dollars. Even Senator Bill Nelson sent a letter of congratulations. The grant would have allowed the purchase of additional property and the development of a location on the river for kayaking, canoeing and historical preservation. But this plan would not match the revenue a developer would bring to the city, so the effort continues to squash a couple of good-intentioned, tax-paying citizens who played by the rules.
The property also has a natural spring best described by this excerpt from the Reflections of Manatee website:
Still flowing underground at this spot, this natural spring has been an important resource for many peoples. Archaeologists have found evidence of Native American Mounds here. In the 1810s, historians have documented a community, called Angola, of formerly enslaved Africans and “Black Seminoles” near this area. Allies of Andrew Jackson destroyed Angola in 1821, but Josiah Gates and Miles Price reported cultivated fields just south of here in 1841; they were guided by Phillipi Bermudez, Manuel Olizella, and Miguel Guerrero, Spanish fishermen, who were very familiar with the Manatee River area. Gates was one of the first settlers of Manatee, along with Surveyor Samuel Reid and a group of fifteen white males, ten black males, two black females, and four black children. At the time when Gates came to the spring, it was a twelve-foot pool of water that boiled out from a depth of four feet from a white sandy bottom. The Spring House (Summer House) built later, stood here prior to 1900.
As part of the requirements of accepting the property, Reflections of Manatee has to ensure it is providing historical education and preservation, something pretty obvious by their actions, as well as the documentation found on their website. The city is suing them for violating this provision.
There are over 260 court docket entries for the suit, in what looks like an effort to bury them in legal costs. Reflections of Manatee also has concerns as to whether they will get a fair trial. There may be good cause since the judge and the city’s attorney were accused of ex-parte communications. The group asked for another judge, but has been refused.
Another concern Reflections of Manatee has is the close relationship that Mayor Poston and his wife have with the judge. All seem like valid reasons for the assigned judge to step aside on this one to dispel any appearance of favoritism.
This messy situation started almost 10 years after the property was transferred, and has now been in litigation for over seven years! The city has had to change its complaint (reasons for suit) three times. It doesn’t take much to imagine that a suit starting in 2007 – the height of the development boom – was for the benefit of developers. However, it is not too late for the city to end this senseless attack. All it would require is a motion from a council member and a majority vote.
What harm would there be in ending this mess? Reflections of Manatee continues to preserve history and at its, rather than the city's expense. If the city wants to continue to provide a recreational area on the land in dispute, a simple agreement with Reflections of Manatee would be all that is needed. If this was only a simple misunderstanding of the land intended to be transferred, we would not have the previous Mayor and Council representatives supporting Reflections of Manatee position.
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