The ongoing feud between Manatee County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge, Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes, and the City of Holmes Beach is quickly becoming a crisis of leadership. What’s more, it may be time to question whether the bully tactics being used are even legal.
During Van Ostenbridge’s very first county commission meeting in November of 2020, he suggested that the county might withhold future beach renourishment funds sought by the City of Holmes Beach if the city’s street-side parking allowances were not restored to pre-COVID levels. Van Ostenbridge demanded a minimum of 2,500 parking spaces in Holmes Beach, a figure not based on any past requirement with the county.
The Mayor of Holmes Beach sent a letter to the county explaining that only 435 public parking spaces one-quarter mile from the beach are required and that her city provides almost three times that amount with 1,261 public spaces (another 642 spaces require a permit for residents and vacation rentals). Holmes Beach provides more free parking than any other island city.
What is really bazaar about this alternate reality with Van Ostenbridge is that, as a county commissioner, he is actually reducingparking at Coquina Beach. It was estimated that over 600 parking spaces are being lost as the county, without any real justification, paves Coquina Beach’s parking area. Perhaps the state legislature’s interest in restoring parking on Anna Maria Island’s beaches should first focus on the county restoring these lost spaces.
There is also the question of capacity. The beaches, regardless of parking, can only support so many people at any beach location. Manatee Beach in Holmes Beach is, by far, the most congested public beach on the island, and a garage there would create more frustration for people finding a spot to enjoy the beach.
Coquina Beach, located just down the island in Bradenton Beach, is owned by the county and has more capacity than Manatee Beach, as well as more lifeguard stations. While a garage is not likely to even put a dent in parking demand, if one is to be considered, it should obviously be where the beach has the capacity to handle the additional parking, which is certainly not Manatee Beach, where Van Ostenbridge is attempting to force the city to accept his demands or pay the price.
We thought the parking battle reached new heights in 2021, when the Manatee County County Commission, led by Van Ostenbridge, denied Holmes Beach nearly $300,000 in tourism tax dollars. Commissioner Van Ostenbridge told 8 On Your Side that he plans to propose going for fewer dollars at Holmes Beach due to the ongoing parking dispute. His intent to threaten and extort the city is real.
At a City of Holmes Beach Commission meeting, Van Ostenbridge commented that he had met with Representative Will Robinson (R-Bradenton) and Florida Senator Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) concerning the construction of a parking garage. Recently, the two legislators approved submitting legislation in the upcoming session that would strip away from the city its ability to restrict the building of a parking garage on the county’s public beach. If passed, this legislation would remove the city’s local power to regulate building approvals. This obviously goes very much against the Republicans Party’s supposed position in favor of home rule, which dictates that the best decisions are made locally and not forced upon communities by state or federal government.
In his continuous pattern of threats, Van Ostenbridge told the Holmes Beach Commission to "think long and hard“ about restricting his desire to build a multi-level parking garage at Manatee Beach. He further admitted that the decisions by the city commission had already "cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars from this county.“
In an admission of acting on his threat to withhold money from the city over his demand for the city to not restrict parking, Van Ostenbridge stated, "How do I say this politely? It’s not an accident that the governor vetoed $2 million in funding for the city.“
Van Ostenbridge added that the city’s decisions were having "consequences.“
"The county is currently in budget discussions at this time,“ said Van Ostenbridge. "I ask you to please be thoughtful and not reactionary. Take into mind there could be or would be good or bad consequences for whatever decisions are made here.“
Van Ostenbridge’s actions and comments are not just playing politics. In fact, they would seem to be illegal, as he has continuously and with malicious intent threatened real injury to the person, property, or reputation of another, with intent thereby to extort money or any pecuniary advantage whatsoever, or with intent to compel the person so threatened, or any other person, to do any act or refrain from doing any act against his or her will. If this is proven, it is, by definition, a felony of the second degree.
Florida Statute 836.05 on threats and extortion is not vague.
Whoever, either verbally or by a written or printed communication, maliciously threatens to accuse another of any crime or offense, or by such communication maliciously threatens an injury to the person, property or reputation of another, or maliciously threatens to expose another to disgrace, or to expose any secret affecting another, or to impute any deformity or lack of chastity to another, with intent thereby to extort money or any pecuniary advantage whatsoever, or with intent to compel the person so threatened, or any other person, to do any act or refrain from doing any act against his or her will, shall be guilty of a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
Let’s summarize the actions that warrant further investigation:
During Van Ostebridge’s very first county commission meeting in November of 2020, the commissioner suggested that the county might withhold future beach renourishment funds sought by the city of Holmes Beach if the city’s street-side parking allowances were not restored to pre-COVID levels.
Van Ostenbridge then told the mayor and Holmes Beach commissioners at a public meeting that they had already suffered financial consequences because they did not restore the parking spaces (reduced under the city’s revised ordinance).
Van Ostenbridge is on record, on video, stating that it was no accident that the governor vetoed a stormwater project costing $2 million to the city. These projects were aimed at protecting the public’s infrastructure as well as improving public safety.
At the same meeting, the commissioner stated that there would be consequences if they did not allow his demand for a parking garage. You can view the meeting here along with the mayor's response to the threats made against her city by Van Ostenbridge.
There seems to be enough proof to suggest that, in his communications, Commissioner Van Ostenbridge maliciously threatened an injury to a person, or property with intent thereby to extort a pecuniary advantage whatsoever, and also with intent to compel the person so threatened, or any other person, to do any act or refrain from doing any act against his or her will, to find probable cause that he committed a felony of the second degree.
This is not your typical politics of give and take. It is one based on threats and extortion, all of which are very much illegal. As for our state representatives, it is debatable at this point whether you can even call them "representatives" of the people they serve. Shame on both Will Robinson and Jim Boyd for their lack of character in failing to communicate to the City of Holmes Beach directly as to their desire to have the State of Florida enforce the county’s desire to build a parking garage onto one of its beaches.
In addition to this egregious shortcoming, we must consider the legislators' second affront to home rule regarding commissioning a study to look at consolidating the three unique island cities into one larger government. This is not only poor judgment, as it falls far short of what should be expected of so-called leaders, but it is yet another example of big government disrespecting the principle of home rule.
While our state legislators’ actions are beyond disappointing, they are unlikely to be illegal unless they were somehow witting accomplices to the threats and extortion of Commissioner Van Ostenbridge. When it comes to the latter, however, Florida officials owe it to residents of the state to investigate whether the commissioner’s brazen strongarming of a local government meets the threshold of extortion charges. If we really are the so-called Free State of Florida, as so many of my fellow Republicans like to brag when it comes to culture war issues, we should indeed be free of extortion at the hands of those elected to represent us.
Joe McClash is the publisher of The Bradenton Times. He served on the Manatee County Commission for 22 years.