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County Commission Shows Public Who They Work For

Board votes 6-1 to gut wetland protections


In what amounted to a reprehensible mockery of the democratic process itself, Manatee County Commissioners voted 6-1 to move forward in gutting the county’s own wetland protection policy during Thursday’s land use meeting. 

Deep down, I’m sure most of you had little doubt that would be the outcome. Sure, the planning commission strayed from the script at last week’s meeting, but that’s a volunteer board that only makes recommendations. Planning commissioners don’t have to raise piles of campaign cash or consider the fact that their taxpayer-funded salary is more than they made prior to being elected, the way that most county commissioners do.

Unless they harbor higher ambitions in the public sphere—and it seems two of them might—there exists far less incentive to risk being remembered as one of a handful of people who went against the loudly expressed will of the public in approving policies that are certain to exacerbate our already considerable water woes just so that the development cartel can adjust the commas on their bottom line. 

In coming years, every time citizens are out on the water trying to enjoy what had once been a paradise only to have their attempt at recreation spoiled by the sight of bloated, rotting fish corpses, mats of blue-green algae, or great big floating piles of lyngbya, they’ll have some names to curse. At the top of the list will be their county commissioners—Kevin Van Ostenbridge, Amanda Ballard, Jason Bearden, James Satcher, Mike Rahn, and Ray Turner. Commissioner George Kruse, in his new role as disgruntled outsider, cast the sole dissenting vote. 

Former county administrator Scott Hopes once reportedly told staff not to waste time watching commission meetings because they were just theater. It seems that may have been one of the few times Hopes had not been lying through his teeth. 

Over the past few weeks, this publication has laid it all out for the community. We reported multiple times that developer Carlos Beruff has been suing the county since 2015 over its wetland policies, essentially asking for exactly what was brought forward as this “county-initiated” proposal. We reported that county staff had been removed from the role of preparing the staff report that would guide commissioners because they objected to removing the 50-foot buffer requirement from our most critical wetlands. 

We reported that Daniel DeLisi, the so-called expert that the county had outsourced the guidance that would typically be done by its own highly-qualified staff was the same exact expert Beruff used in his unsuccessful lawsuits, and we reported that Delisi testified to Manatee County attorneys in a deposition that he was not an environmental scientist, nor a wetlands expert. 

We also reported that DeLisi was not the first man considered for the job and that Alec Hoffner, Senior Scientist at Kimley-Horn and Associates, had been loosely engaged prior. This made sense, since, unlike DeLisi, Hoffner is an environmental scientist, an actual wetlands expert, and works for the firm that the county had already hired to consult on the pending overhaul of its comprehensive land use plan and land development code. However, a source who claimed first-hand knowledge of what transpired during those meetings told TBT that once Hoffner expressed the same opinion as staff, the county decided he wasn’t the right person for the job. 

Clearly, the fix was in, and just in case any of the commissioners hadn’t heard this themselves, a full house (and overflow room) showed up to give public comment. One member of the public even read a large portion of an investigative report by TBT’s Dawn Kitterman into the record. 

For his part, Mr. DeLisi stood at the podium and softly spoke what was essentially the same mealy-mouthed, misinformed, hem and haw fest that he gave planning commissioners last week. These are arbitrary and unique requirements, I’ve seen no science to support the idea that bigger wetland buffers improve water quality, there are other methods by which you can accomplish it, blotty blue, blotty blah. 

DeLisi did seem to be struggling to put even a little bit of bass into his voice and give something approaching the sort of full-throated pitch that might suggest he believes his own brand of gobbledygook. But I guess getting your ass handed to you by every court and board in the county up to that point has a way of undermining your confidence even when you’ve been assured that the outcome is predetermined. Don’t worry, Danny Boy, that was just an exhibition. I’ve already taken care of the board that counts.

One by one, members of the public confronted the board with the many flaws in DeLisi’s presentation. Dr. Abby Tyrna—a Ph.D. environmental scientist who specializes in wetlands—once again shot enough holes in DeLisi’s assessment to make it look like Swiss cheese. Rob Brown, who was the Manatee County Environmental Program Manager for 34 years—including when the comp plan was being written—then made it look like Swiss cheese that had been taken to a gun range and sprayed by an assault rifle. Brown told commissioners that the county had indeed used the science that was already available back then to support its conclusion on the necessity of adequate buffers. 

Much more damningly, however, Brown then brought up an element of the proposal that had never been considered or discussed to this point. He pointed out the fact that the wetland buffers also apply to phosphate mining, which means that not only developers but phosphate mining giant Mosaic—which owns more land than anyone in Manatee County—would also benefit from the change. Think about that, folks. The mining considerations of this policy had never been discussed or considered before Tuesday’s meeting, yet not only was it not enough for anyone to consider a continuance, not one commissioner even asked that the implications be explained!

Rusty Chinnis, a recently retired Longboat Key contractor and avid fisherman who has lived in the county for 41 years, provided what may have been the most effective presentation. Chinnis simply forced commissioners to watch a few moments of recently shot drone footage of Manatee waterways, showing that they are indeed choc full of toxic lyngbya, while describing the foul odor of the highly-toxic cyanobacteria. It was a striking visual aid that screamed, Your water is already a mess, why on Earth would you even think about approving a policy reducing its protections?

Despite the public’s head-spinning rebuttal of their expert, few commissioners were interested in asking questions or getting more information. Turner and Bearden said nothing at all, while Satcher offered some soft-headed and irrelevant story about some friend from another county who was in a pickle owed to government overreach. Rahn stumbled through a brief attempt to pretend he was doing his job, and then just nodded along.

Amanda Ballard, who looked painfully disinterested in the proceedings, finally got in the game and asked DeLisi to respond to public comments that suggested other coastal counties had similar protections and that there was nothing unique about Manatee’s. DeLisi muttered some nonsense about only having had a few weeks to work on this, having an idea regarding counties he’s worked with, and a vague assurance that he’d make sure they had the most complete information.

If DeLisi is not aware of the easily verifiable fact that Manatee County’s wetland policies are in no way uniquely rigid or that a solid majority of counties have similar policies and do not just defer to the state minimums, it’s because he hasn’t looked, probably for fear of not being able to testify to his lack of awareness. As we’ve already established that DeLisi is not a wetland expert, however, this shoots serious holes in his claim that his expertise lies in wetlands from a policymaking standpoint. Commissioners would do well to ask what exactly we’ve paid this guy tens of thousands of dollars for if it isn’t actual wetland or wetland policy expertise; that is, if they didn’t already know the answer. He’s the bought and paid-for industry shill who tries his best to sell a justification for whatever the desired outcome is.

Kruse, who obviously knew what was going on, as he was once a member of the we get things done for Carlos crew, had some fun asking uncomfortable questions. Even this somewhat gentle ribbing, however, seemed too much for the DeLisi, and at one point, he essentially told Kruse, look, I got a phone call, and I’m just here doing what I’ve been asked to do. Kruse responded by saying that he hadn’t asked for anything. One day, DeLisi was there and he was going to do the job that county staff usually did. 

Van Ostenbridge stepped in to tell Kruse that the six conservative Republicans on the board asked staff to look at some of the county’s regulations and see if there was anything duplicative that could be cut—conveniently leaving out the fact that staff was no longer involved precisely because they did not come back with the preordained answer of yes, the wetland policy, we should just defer to the state minimums.

Kruse later recounted the state legislature's recent effort to pass SB 1240, which would have prohibited counties and municipalities from "adopting laws, regulations, rules or policies relating to water quality or quantity, pollution control, discharge prevention, or removal of wetlands, and preempt such regulations to the state.”

“So the state's already trying to take control of this, and we're trying to voluntarily give it to them before they take it,” said Kruse, again reminding commissioners that the county had already defended the public interest in the policy in court on multiple occasions while the expert was on the other side. “It's like we just won the Super Bowl, and then we went out during the off-season and hired the quarterback from the losing team to run our team next year. It doesn't make sense.”

Of course, there was one person sitting up there who could have brought clarity to it all, and that was Nicole Knapp, who had been the comp plan manager and impact fee administrator when putting county staff on the sideline, passing on Hoffner, and going with DeLisi played out. But Knapp was recently named acting director of development services and given a $38,000 bump in pay, which was apparently enough to quell any crisis of conscience she may have encountered. Looks like she’ll be the odds-on-favorite to get the full-time post. 

When the gavel dropped, the public got feisty. Cries of “shame” echoed through the chamber and most of the commissioners wouldn’t face the public. Van Ostenbridge, however, was sporting the kind of grin that’s usually only seen on men who’ve been so deeply disliked and thoroughly rejected for so long that they come to enjoy playing the role of heel. Like dog breeds of lesser intelligence, those types usually need only a pat on the head from their master to be content, and I’m sure his developer sugar daddy was reaching down to tell him who was a good boy in short order.

Today played out like The Lorax as a live-action movie. I’ve been covering Manatee County government for over 13 years and I’ve honestly never seen such a corrupt, intellectually-vacant policy decision, nor such a transparent giveaway to special interests, and around here, that's saying a lot. At a time when this county needs brave and stalwart leadership on environmental protections more than ever, it is instead in the hands of spineless puppets who can be bought on the cheap. May the gods have mercy on us all. 

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here. He can be reached at editor@thebradentontimes.com.


9 comments on this item

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  • WTF

    Angered beyond words. Bought and sold by the developers. Like cancer, there is no cure, you have to cut it out and remove them from office the next election cycle.

    You never make the same mistake twice. the second time you make it, it is no longer a mistake. it is a choice

    Lauren Conrad

    Friday, August 18, 2023 Report this

  • nellmcphillips

    I am proud of our citizens and this battle is far from over. Not only was there a sea of blue in the audience representing those against the proposed changes but to see a Mom and her 4 children watching this process unfold was encouraging for our future. To see that all comments given were against the BOCC proposed changes was hopeful. Now our BOCC will face potential lawsuits for their refusal to listen to the people. So the people will pay again. So let’s vote these clowns out.

    Friday, August 18, 2023 Report this

  • delswick14

    You know what to do. Vote these yahoos out. Don’t buy homes from the greedy developers who do not respect science. Plan sign waving events when they start building on sensitive lands.

    Friday, August 18, 2023 Report this

  • writerlynn9717

    Shocked and sad after this vote by our county commissioners. This is a non-partisan issue with Republicans and Dems and Independents all for the wetland buffers and to not reduce them. Environmentalists, scientists, engineers, informed citizens, and citizens who rely on our water quality all spoke out. Not one comment from the hundreds of people attending, except the BOCC spokesperson, spoke in favor of reducing our wetland buffer.

    When I now hear this comment, which is every time you speak about BOCC, "They are in the pockets of the developers," the statement hits hard, because I don't know what else to believe. Yesterday's outcome spoke starkly at exactly how little these commissioners, except Kruse, care for what Manatee County citizens say, when they even shout it from the rooftops at their meetings. They want less development covering up our most precious resource, our wetlands, and for them to be very protective of our water quality, to help reduce destructive algae blooms, and protect fishing and wildlife and our recreational activities.

    What other resource would people have except to believe the dirty truth of it? LYNN ARAGON

    Friday, August 18, 2023 Report this

  • Charlene

    This was the most disgusting display of contempt for the public. We have got to get organized and vote these people out. There is a chance for a new majority. Go to their town halls - Satcher and Ballard have them scheduled next month - and let them know that you see them for who they are and that you will not forget. And you will tell your neighbors.

    Friday, August 18, 2023 Report this

  • Carolannfelts

    As a member of the public, a former and future candidate that has been a persistent and consistent activist in protecting and preserving this Paradise my family has been blessed to called home for over 8 generations, let’s not take lightly that my 1st amendment rights to free speech were violated during the course of this meeting by those supposedly under the trinity of Accountability, Civility and Ethics.

    My dismissal from the podium by the chair, complete with MCSO escorts, was pure theatre by bad actors in their attempts to intimidate or disparage the organic and genuine nature of my character and message to the public. Let it be seen and known that those who cry “Liberty” the loudest are often those who withhold that from others.

    And the message is, and will always be, that we each have a personal right and responsibility to speak up, speak out and use our brains for more than a space between our ears.

    I won’t be silenced, because I am an American, a native Floridian, and I’m old enough to know the history of our county and state that has led to the debacle we are in.

    We have met the enemy, and he is us, not them.

    I and WE will not be silenced and the currency of character must overcome the 7 sins our local government is more than familiar with.

    Friday, August 18, 2023 Report this

  • barbstubbers

    Thank you, Mitch for covering this in great detail. Your descriptions are spot on. I was in attendance and was impressed with the level of excellent information given by the speakers. For the commissioners to claim they are doing this as "conservative republicans" would not make anyone want to be one of those! It is very disgusting and disappointing. We deserve better and must vote them out!

    Also angered beyond words. All the commissioners should be ashamed of themselves.

    Barb Stubbers

    Friday, August 18, 2023 Report this

  • Charles

    Good reason to sign the petition to get the Florida Right To Clean Water amendment proposal onto the ballot for the will of the people to be followed. It will keep corrupt mistakenly-elected officials from being able to make decisions such as this in favor of polluters by making the protection of our waters the obligation of the state and all of its officials — an obligation, with full enforcement. No need to argue about it, it becomes an obligation enshrined in the state constitution. Have you gotten behind this yet? If the voters do not sign the petitions, it will never be presented on the ballot.

    Friday, August 18, 2023 Report this

  • Dianna

    To all the citizens who voiced their opinion and to those who could attend: We appreciate your efforts! Carol Felts- thank you for your comments- they were worth being escorted out! We were watching from afar but cheering you and the other citizens on! We must come together to stop this.

    Sunday, August 20, 2023 Report this