Log in Subscribe

Code Enforcement Controversy: KVO Accused of Improper Directives

Text messages provide peek behind the scenes


BRADENTON — Questions are being raised concerning Manatee County’s Code Enforcement Division and whether a county commissioner may be inappropriately giving directives to code enforcement officials. The allegations are related to political signs regarding the commissioner and a separate directive for code enforcement officers to pay “visits” to local businesses.

In recent weeks, TBT received information from a source who claimed personal knowledge of a situation alleged to involve a local business property, code enforcement, and a political sign regarding Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge.

The source requested anonymity in exchange for sharing the information with our publication and using the information provided by the source, TBT was able to verify much of the source’s claim.

According to the source, the business had erected a yard sign that read, “Hell No!! KVO” that included a photo of Commissioner Van Ostenbridge’s face with a red circle and diagonal crossline over it—similar to what is seen on a no smoking sign. The bottom of the sign read, “Register and Vote.”

The business’ property is located in west Bradenton along 59th Street West, less than a mile from the Pointe West subdivision’s 59th Street entrance. Pointe West is also the location of Van Ostenbridge’s residence.

The source said that a county code enforcement officer paid a visit to the business in late April and spoke to an employee about the sign. According to our source, the code enforcement officer told the employee that they were sent to the establishment to inspect the sign per a “directive from the ninth floor.”

The “ninth floor” is the floor of the county administrative building where the offices of the county administrator and county commissioners are located.

According to the source, the code enforcement officer told the business that he would not remove the sign despite the directive because it was legally placed on private property.

Public records obtained by the Florida Center for Government Accountability and reviewed by TBT appear to corroborate the details of the source’s story.

Records of text messages sent and received between Code Enforcement Lieutenant Brad Szinc and a code enforcement officer reference the “KVO” sign and an instruction to the officer to remove it despite having verified that it was placed on private property.

On April 22, 2024, at approximately 12:30 p.m., a code enforcement officer referenced only as “Dan” in the text records writes to Szinc, “The sign KVO wants down is on private. The office is full, too. Ain’t gonna be my pic blasted for touching that thing. He can get it.”

Lieutenant Szinc texted back, “Send me the picture.”

The officer then sent his superior two photos as instructed. The first appears to show the sign's proximity to the sidewalk, while the other shows that when looking straight on, the sign was placed further back than a nearby power pole. 

Click the photos below to enlarge the images. 

First photo texted by code enforcement officer on 4/22/24. Image obtained through a public record request.
First photo texted by code enforcement officer on 4/22/24. Image obtained through a public record request.
Second photo texted by code enforcement officer on 4/22/24. Image obtained through a public record request.
Second photo texted by code enforcement officer on 4/22/24. Image obtained through a public record request.

An hour after the officer sent his lieutenant the photos showing the sign was located on private property and not in the public right-of-way, another text was sent to the officer. In this text, Szinc instructed the officer, “Dan, grab the sign please, and hold on to it.”

TBT reached out to the business that is believed to be the site of the incident, but a representative declined to speak on the matter.
TBT was able to independently confirm that as of Friday, May 17,  a "KVO" sign remains posted on the business’s property.

The public records obtained by the Florida Center for Government Accountability included archived text messages from the county-issued cell phones of Manatee County Code Enforcement Chief Tom Wooten and his two lieutenants. The records obtained include those texts sent or received by the code enforcement officials between March and May.

In our review of the records, TBT was unable to locate any additional messages in the included timeframe of texts that were related to the “KVO” signs. There appeared to be no record of any directive coming down the chain of command that instructed the Lieutenant to have his officer remove the sign—including from Van Ostenbridge to any official.

However, the text records obtained from Code Enforcement Chief Wooten show that he and the commissioner exchanged texts concerning other local businesses.

On April 29, 2024, at approximately 6:00 p.m., Van Ostenbridge texted Wooten, “I am going to start texting you random businesses that need a visit.”

Wooten responded to the text, writing, “Okay no problem.”

A moment later, Van Ostenbridge sends a text, “Wendy’s, Burger King, Midas on Manatee Ave.”

Roughly a half hour later, Wooten confirms receipt of Van Ostenbridge’s list of “random businesses to visit” with a “Got it.”

It is not clear from the messages whether there were believed to be any code violations by any of the three businesses along that portion of Manatee Avenue West, but each of the businesses is near 59th Street West.

The Burger King is at the corner of Manatee Ave West and 59th Street, the Wendy’s is little more than a quarter mile from 59th on Manatee, and the Manatee Ave Midas location is just over a half mile from 59th Street West.

TBT visited these locations by car to see whether we could independently identify any visible issues with the business locations. Both of the fast food restaurants appeared to have been remodeled somewhat recently, and the Midas location also showed no obvious signs of being ill-kept or disorderly.

What may be of note, however, is that the businesses Van Ostenbridge included on his list reside along a portion of Manatee Ave’s western corridor that contains medians recently taken over by the county from the City of Bradenton.

In September 2023, commissioners approved the execution of an interlocal agreement between Manatee County and the City of Bradenton, under which the county assumed sole responsibility for the maintenance and landscaping of the five medians along Manatee Avenue from 43rd Street West to 75th Street West.

The improvements undertaken by the county on its newly acquired medians received some criticism from members of the public who disagreed with the county’s plan to remove established shade trees and replace them with royal palms, sod, and an irrigation system.

In addition to the texts exchanged between Wooten and Van Ostenbridge about the businesses, the record also showed that on March 23, Van Ostenbridge sent Wooten a double "thumbs up" emoji. No other text records from that date provided context for the communication. Similarly, on March 26,  Wooten texted a "thumbs up" to Van Ostenbridge, and like the text from three days earlier, no other texts appear in the record to show what the message may have been in reference to. 

TBT requested comment from Chief Wooten regarding either of the matters revealed by the text records—a code enforcement officer allegedly being instructed to remove a sign and the list of businesses texted to Wooten by Van Ostenbridge. Wooten had not responded to any of our emailed requests before our publication deadline.

Prior Code Enforcement Concerns

These latest revelations concerning the county’s Division of Code Enforcement come less than two years after the unit was shaken by a scandal when a code enforcement officer levied allegations against her superiors.

The former employee, who turned whistleblower, alleged favoritism and inappropriate handling of code violations. The matter then involved a property in Myakka City that has since become the permanent site of the annual Medieval Faire.

In Sept. 2021, six Manatee County employees were placed on administrative leave after Manatee County Inspector General Lori Stephens announced that her office had launched an investigation in response to the whistleblower’s allegations.

Among those who were placed on leave were then-Code Enforcement Chief Jeffery Bowman, code enforcement supervisor Tom Wooten—who was promoted to chief this year—and former Building and Services Department Director John Barnott.

While Barnott retired from the organization before the investigation concluded, Bowman, Wooten, and the three other employees temporarily placed on paid leave were allowed to return to their posts.

A final report issued by the IG’s office in March 2022 found that "Evidence supports that certain individuals were given favorable treatment by management with Code Enforcement cases and the permit process. In some instances, this appeared to be due to personal/professional relationships.”

Having analyzed 240 code enforcement cases and 103 permits/plans identified through tips from then-current and former employees, data analytics, a review of employee emails, and citizen complaints, the IG’s investigation identified 26 code enforcement cases and 7 permits involving 18 properties that were not handled in accordance with policies, procedures, rules, and/or codes.

According to the report, five of the mishandled cases and six of the permits showed evidence of supervisor involvement. In three of those cases, investigators established evidence of a personal or professional relationship between the subject and high-ranking employees.

In the month following the investigation’s conclusion, then-county administrator Scott Hopes announced a reorganization of Code Enforcement. The division was divided into two separate enforcement areas placed within different departments.

A new division of code enhancement was created within the Development Services Department, which was tasked with code matters related to land development. Chief Bowman was removed from the general code enforcement division and made head of the county’s new code enhancement.

The general Code Enforcement Division—which now focuses mainly on property maintenance issues—was moved under the Department of Public Safety. The reorganization, according to Hopes, was intended to correct management inadequacies and misconduct that had been identified during the investigation.

With former Chief of Code Enforcement Bowman reassigned as head of the new Code Enhancement, the county hired George McCorkle as its new Chief of Code Enforcement.

In August of 2022, Bowman voluntarily separated from the county, and in January of this year, McCorkle separated from the county.

While the details concerning Bowman’s decision to leave the county are unclear, multiple sources—including some close to the matter—have shared that McCorkle was "pushed out." The exact cause of his termination is unclear.

Shortly after McCorkle’s termination, Tom Wooten was promoted to Chief of Code Enforcement. A former Manatee County Sheriff deputy, Wooten has been with Manatee County's Division of Code Enforcement for over 16 years, hired as a code enforcement officer in November 2007.

Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter and investigative journalist for The Bradenton Times covering local government news. She can be reached at dawn.kitterman@thebradentontimes.com.


11 comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.

  • Debann


    Saturday, May 18 Report this

  • David Daniels

    Kevin VanOstenbridge is the opposite of what public service is all about. He's like power-hungry crime boss, inappropriately using government departments for his personal benefit. County policy states that Commissioners must go through the Administrator. For VanOstenbridge to personally direct a department manager is not only against policy - it is an unethical abuse of power. Using code enforcement to support his election campaign is blatant corruption. It undermines what little public trust is left in our county government. KVO was caught using a county credit card to purchase personal data of his constituents. He uses county social media and video production to claim credit for conservation purchases. He falsely claims to be a check on development but has voted to approve 10's of thousands of new homes and stripped wetland protection. He uses his personal phone so he can ignore public record requests. If anyone would like a HELL NO KVO sign, you are welcome to take one from my front yard at 3005 23rd Ave W, Bradenton. I try to keep 2 - 3 signs out that people are welcome to take. I have just 5 left but will have plenty more by midweek. Close to 50 have been distributed. Please, pick up a sign so we send a clear message that his time is up. Vote for KVO? HELL NO!

    Saturday, May 18 Report this

  • Dianna

    You can call it code enforcement or code enhancement but not a damn thing has changed in this department. If the public only knew how those code enforcement employees and their administration mishandled cases and then during the last investigation -blamed it on employees who were either retired or not even present. The corruption comes from the exact same management as before- still taking advantage of the citizens they work for.

    Saturday, May 18 Report this

  • WTF

    He is NOT to instruct ANY county employee to do ANYTHING ... every request MUST go thru the administrator Charlie Bishop then he goes to the department heads to inform them if anything should be done or not.

    The BOCC can only suggest/direct the Administrator to do something.

    The good news ...with every sign taken down is replace with a Bougainvillea plant!

    He has a free membership to the One & Done Club

    Saturday, May 18 Report this

  • attybarber

    It’s unsettling that a politician feels so comfortable using the enforcement arm of government for political intimidation that he makes an actual written list of lawfare targets and then sends this public record electronically to the enforcement officials. Vote.

    Sunday, May 19 Report this

  • sandy

    Kudos to the Code Enforcement Officer who refused to take the sign on private property. It was still there as of Sunday, May 19 around 9:30 a.m. KVO would have taken it himself but is probably afraid there would be a camera there to record him. He needs to go back to the training to relearn the process. Commissioners go to the administrator, the administrator to the department director. He should not be going directly to employees including the Chief of Code Enforcement, but his ego is so big, rules don't apply to him. If I was in his district, I would request one of those signs and proudly show it on my lot. He needs to be voted out District 3.

    Sunday, May 19 Report this

  • iambillsanders

    KVO gave a directive to have my vehicle removed from the county lot . The lot said open to the public for parking. Bishop had my vehicle tagged. I ask him why and he said no overnight parking. I said the vehicle had only been there 2 hours and was never left overnight. I ask to see the ordinance that supports that and I never received one because it does not exist. KVO then comes to City Council meeting upon the direction of Mayor Brown and complains about my yard signs and the RV and admits on tape he had Bishop tag the vehicle. He was trying to influence the city's code enforcement to act and they would not. Remember KVO and Administrator Perry during a City Council. meeting were making fun of a presenter on form base code. Remember the comments "Hammer Time"

    Sunday, May 19 Report this

  • David Daniels

    Thank you for everyone that has taken a sign! I'll have 20 more on Thursday afternoon. Don't let this be a thought today but forgotten tomorrow. Informed residents won't vote for KVO. A sign in your yard helps inform your neighbors and builds the true grass roots movement that it will take to overcome the $200K developers have invested in their puppet KVO. (not the Blue one).

    Sunday, May 19 Report this

  • Cat L

    KVO is just super crime-y... Aaand it's clear he is not alone. Hopes was not chosen for his ethical standpoint, and I guess by "management inadequacies" he meant streamline the process for crime-ing.

    If they were actually making things better it would be one thing, because there are a number of times in history people took control of an area and did major things that were beneficial to people, but that's not what this is. This is a bunch of shortsighted self-oriented businessmen patting each other on the back while they mow over the wants and needs of the rest of the community.

    Sunday, May 19 Report this

  • ruthlawler

    Thank you David Daniels for the "Hell No KVO" sign on my property, and a camera that is focused on it. It is so true that KVO is operating like a crime boss. Do you really think Biship cares what KVO does? I doubt it, suspect he just looks the other way. It is time to elect a credible, experienced leader for District 3, and who has been here for decades in District 3. Prior CEO of Manatee County Habitat for Humanity. Vote Diana Shoemaker, www.electshoemaker.com.

    Sunday, May 19 Report this

  • Emac

    Thanks for the detailed report, Dawn.. Let's see where this one takes us

    BYW, where can I get a sign?

    Monday, May 20 Report this