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Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee?


Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge fully embraced “free speech” when he ran for office in 2020. However, when it comes to the speech of the citizens he claims to represent,  it turns out the bougainvillea thief isn’t so keen on free speech after all.

For Van Ostenbridge’s 2020 campaign, his developer backers funded dark money PACs to launch a despicably dishonest attack campaign against his opponent, Iraq War veteran Matt Bower. Bower dropped out of the Republican primary to run as an NPA candidate after Van Ostenbridge’s team took advantage of the write-in loophole to close off what would otherwise be an open primary.

As a grassroots, independent candidate with a fraction of the campaign cash, Bower was already facing an uphill battle, to say the least. Despite Bower’s best efforts and immense popularity among voters of all stripes, who were among the minority closely engaged in local politics, internal polling suggested Van Ostenbridge was cruising to a victory. Nevertheless, those close to his campaign have said that the commissioner insisted on continued heavy spending to not only discourage Bower from running in the future but also send a message to anyone who might challenge him going forward.

For nearly four years since being elected, Carlos Berruff’s errand boy has directed what might best be described as a shadow government. Text messages and call logs revealed in public records show that Van Ostenbridge regularly conversed with Beruff and his middleman, political consultant Anthony Pedecini, before engaging in political machinations that served the interest of his benefactors.

While the county government administration has devolved into a top-heavy bastion of corruption and cronyism, Van Ostenbridge has seemed to consolidate even more power as hand-picked lackeys continue to climb the ranks while talented public servants flee in droves.

As a result of the deeply unpopular policies pushed by Van Ostenbridge (wetland destruction, impact fees, the island parking garage, etc.), nearly any voter who knows who he is would like to see him sent packing in this year’s election. One of those voters is David Daniels.

Daniels recently had a small yard sign made that reads “Hell No KVO,” expressing his disdain for the commissioner’s performance. Daniels says that many people who feel similarly disenchanted by the commissioner started asking where they might get one. Daniels, who’d had the sign made as a one-off, began ordering more and allowing those who wanted one to pick one up from his yard.

But when someone else wants to exercise their First Amendment rights, it turns out Van Ostenbridge isn’t so big on free speech after all. Recent reporting by TBT’s Dawn Kitterman suggests that Van Ostenbridge and top officials in the county’s scandal-ridden code enforcement office directed rank-and-file enforcement officers to take down the signs, even when they were not on a public right of way. In other words, they were directed to steal other people's private property, something the commissioner, who served probation for theft during his first term, has proven to have no qualms about.

When one of the enforcement officers refused, he was disciplined. Further communications obtained by the Florida Center for Government Accountability show that Van Ostenbridge routinely communicates with Code Enforcement Chief Tommy Wooten about addresses that might need a visit.

Wooten was somehow hired as a code enforcement officer in 2007 despite having served time in a federal prison for his role in a ring of shockingly corrupt law enforcement officers within the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. Wooten's sentence precludes him from ever again working in law enforcement, but that didn’t stop Manatee County from making him just about the closest thing to a cop that his record would allow.

Wooten was one of five employees walked out of the building and placed on leave during the Tanya Shaw whistleblower case. The case involved blatant special treatment given to the politically connected owner of the Sarasota Medieval Fair, while Shaw was effectively disciplined for refusing to play ball (notice a pattern here?). For a moment, it seemed like the hammer would finally have to drop. However, the outcome saw Shaw kicked to the curb while Wooten ultimately got promoted to head of the department.

Wooten's promotion came after former chief George McCorkle had been fired. By all accounts, McCorkle was a straight shooter who did things by the book. Given what we have seen from only glimpses of what goes on within code enforcement, one has to wonder whether he, like so many others, is no longer with the county because he refused to play ball and assist elected officials and corrupt bosses who are intent on illegally using the power of government to their own benefit.

Meanwhile, Van Ostenbridge’s younger brother, who got a county job after the commissioner had been elected, has filed a formal complaint with the Florida Elections Commission alleging that Daniels’ signs violate state election law. However, the statute referenced in Keith Van Ostenbridge’s complaint is specific to candidates, which Daniels is not. It would seem that Daniels is exercising his freedom of speech, the same way that dark money PACs and corporate special interests claim to be doing in the post-Citizens United “money is speech and corporations are people” era of politics.

Van Ostenbridge is a bully, and bullies hate few things more than a dose of their own medicine. He’s also a fake conservative and hypocrite of the highest order. But if you are a reader of this column, you already know these things all too well. So, now that the tiny tyrant has jumped into a countywide race, join me in spreading the word so that more voters might prove immune to the fabricated political red meat his puppeteers pump out in their attack ads this time around. It’s high time to send this goldbricker back to the ranks of the powerless loudmouths who are much more easily ignored.

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.


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  • Libby23

    Thanks Mitch for spreading the word countywide . Clearly KVO switched to District 7 because he knows those of us in District 3 have his number.

    Sunday, June 9 Report this

  • mp1616

    Even though KVO fled District 3, we still need to stay informed and elect Diana Shoemaker for county commissioner. electshoemaker.com.

    Sunday, June 9 Report this

  • David Daniels

    Thank you Mitch, for accurately describing the signs as an expression of disdain for KVO's performance. I don't think they can defined as a political advertisement. The sign, hopefully, makes the statement that KVO's behavior and his votes do not represent my views, nor do they represent the long term interest of Manatee County. Yes, the sign reminds people to vote, but requiring a sign to say HELL NO KVO - SEND AN EMAIL, would have a chilling effect on free speech. Doesn't every negative statement about a politician carry an implied message not to vote for them? The signs are available in my yard. Find me on FB if you would like to have one.

    Sunday, June 9 Report this

  • ruthlawler

    Thank you Mitch, and especially thank you David Daniels. I proudly have a Hell No KVO in my front yard. It is true that way too many residents don't even know who their Commissioners are or what the voting records are. We must all talk to our friends, neighbors and all whom we know to inform the voters of truth and not propoganda. I am proudly voting for Diana Shoemaker for District 3 County Commission seat. www.electshoemaker.com. Ruth Lawler

    Monday, June 10 Report this