BRADENTON — Text message records obtained through a public record request by the Florida Center for Government Accountability provide a peek into behind-the-scenes efforts of local officials and some members of the public. Texts from a cell device of Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes were included in records obtained by FLCGA. Records from Hopes' cell phone reveal that the administrator had directly communicated with local real estate developer Carlos Beruff and Tampa-based political consultant Anthony Pedicini on several occasions.
Beginning in May, FLCGA began its effort to obtain text message records from Manatee County through the submission of public record requests. The organization's efforts have since resulted in legal action against the county after it revealed to FLCGA that it has no means to capture and archive text messages on government-issued cell devices.
The text messages so far obtained through FLCGA's efforts reflect texts produced by the county responsive to a public record request targeting dates between January 2, 2022, and June 23, 2022.
Texts between Hopes and Beruff appeared on the lengthy list of text records obtained by FLCGA. The text communications between the two show some texts exchanged between February and April—February 18, March 18, and again on April 11. On each occasion, records appeared to confirm that phone calls took place between the developer and administrator. The dates of the texts also appeared to coincide with a county-initiated comprehensive plan text amendment for "Peril of Flood."
The item first came to the board in November of 2021, where it received significant public pushback for including language that would have allowed for the use of seawalls and fill dirt to raise properties out of the flood zone. It was Commissioner George Kruse who ultimately motioned during the November land use meeting to have that language removed from the draft text amendment before its transmittal to the state.
On February 28, at approximately 3:15 pm, Beruff sends a text message to Hopes, "Can I call you later?"
Hopes responded within seconds texting back, "ASAP."
Almost an hour later at 4 p.m., Hopes sent another text to Beruff, writing, "I pulled it."
Beruff replied to Hopes' confirmation with a "thank you" and the praying hands emoji.
The reference to "pulling" something appeared likely related to an agenda item. On the list of BOCC's scheduled meetings for 2022, there were three meetings upcoming on February 28 when Beruff and Hopes had their text exchange. The first two were held on March 1, a joint meeting with the BOCC and the Holmes Beach City Commission, and a BOCC special meeting. The next soonest meeting scheduled was a March 3 land use meeting.
Neither agenda for the March 1 BOCC meetings showed any record of a "pulled" agenda item. The joint meeting with Holmes Beach City Commission was related to parking and water taxi discussions. The BOCC special meeting that same day included a capitol improvements presentation and a presentation of the administrator’s efforts at reorganizing the county government and its departments. But the March 3 land use meeting agenda did show an item that was continued, or "pulled." The item was the county-initiated text amendment for the Peril of Flood policy.
When the county is initiating a comprehensive plan amendment, the item will appear on a future agenda and must be noticed. If the county makes the decision to delay, or not "take up" the item at the meeting it was previously scheduled to be heard, the agenda must accurately reflect the item’s continuation including the future meeting date it would be heard. The peril of flood item—item 10—was the only item continued on the March 3 agenda, and the amended agenda showed it was rescheduled to an April 21 land use meeting.
Reporting by TBT on November 21, 2021, titled Effort to Allow Fill and Seawalls in Floodplain Falls Short, recounted the controversial nature of language the county initially attempted to include in the text amendment's transmittal to the state.
The most significant language change was an inclusion that would, under county policy, permit the use of fill dirt, as well as the construction of sea walls to retain that fill along coastal lands for the purpose of bringing properties out of the floodplain. Language some public commenters argued would bring the county into compliance with the Peril of Flood Act by removing properties from the flood plain, while others—including two former county commissioners—argued that the language inclusion would be a direct threat to coastal lands, water quality, and the community.
In 2017, amid public outcry, the Manatee County Commissioners approved plans of Beruff's for a residential and commercial development on the last major undeveloped portion of Sarasota Bay. Opponents of Beruff’s proposed Long Bar Pointe project argued that the plans were not compatible with either the comprehensive land use plan, the land development code, or the surrounding community and that it would do irreparable harm to the coastal environment.
In the end, Beruff agreed to drastically alter his application, including the removal of plans for a large seawall and a 20-foot wide, 8-foot-deep lagoon that was to be dredged between the development and the mangrove shoreline. The new development plan—commonly known as Aqua by the Bay—contained no provisions for the marina or dredging the lagoon. The change from a development with a marina, to one without, impacted the potential sales value for the homes and condos Beruff is currently building at the site.
When the peril of flood comp plan text amendment came before the board in November of 2021, Ed Vogler, a local land-use attorney, provided public comments in favor of the amendment language including seawalls and fill dirt. Carol Clarke, a planner representing Carlos Beruff and Medallion Home, also appeared before the board to share her support for the text amendment language inclusive of seawalls and fill dirt and encouraged the board to approve its transmittal.
After public comments on the item concluded in the November meeting, Commissioner Kruse told the board that after receiving public feedback against the transmittal with the included seawall and fill dirt language, he reviewed the agenda and discovered the included language which he had not seen prior.
"Two whole sections are new here so they weren’t actually approved by the planning commission, they were inserted post-planning commission," Kruse said during the November land use meeting.
Kruse made a motion to amend the peril of flood language to remove all references to seawalls and fill dirt. His motion was seconded by Commissioner Misty Servia. While commissioners Kevin Van Ostenbridge and Vanessa Baugh appeared to think Kruse’s motion was unnecessary, Commissioners Reggie Bellamy and Carol Whitmore seemed set to vote in support of the amended language. The item was ultimately approved as amended by a 6-1 vote with only Commissioner James Satcher dissenting.
On February 28, the same day that Hopes and Beruff were exchanging texts, another text exchange appeared in Hopes' text records. Director of Development Services Courtney DePol texted Hopes at 4:56 pm, roughly an hour after Hopes texted Beruff to confirm having "pulled it."
DePol wrote, "For Perils of Flood- I think it was Bobbi (presumably planning coordinator Bobbi Roy) who pushed the agenda item through. I will get more details from her on Tuesday, but I wanted to make sure you heard that from me."
Hopes replied to DePol's text writing back, "I told Bobbi that you and I needed to be briefed prior to it going to the board."
The records of texts obtained by FLCGA do not show any other texts between Beruff and Hopes until March 18. Hopes sent Beruff a text at 8:33 a.m. saying, "Sorry, I can’t talk now, may I call you later?"
Beruff replied telling Hopes the topic for the call was not an urgent matter. Hopes later messaged Beruff again, at approximately 10:30 a.m., letting him know he was then available to take a call.
Perhaps coincidentally, just two days prior to the March 18 text exchanges and an apparent phone call between Hopes and Beruff, land use attorney Ed Vogler, who was representing Beruff and Pat Neal of Neal Communities on the matter, sent a letter addressed to BOCC Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge, Hopes, and county employees Nicole Knapp (comp plan and peril of flood manager) and Bobbi Roy.
The letter contained an unusual request for the board to consider the addition of language to the text amendment, despite it having already been transmitted, reviewed by the state, and returned for the board's adoption. Vogler's letter—which you can read here—offered suggestions for how the county could "develop and present for consideration and public comment additional principles, strategies, and engineering solutions that comply with the law."
Nearly a dozen environmental and community-focused organizations submitted a letter in opposition to Mr. Vogler's suggested language inclusion. The multi-organizational April 19 letter included, "Vogler attempts to mislead the Board suggesting that the law requires they adopt new Comprehensive Plan policies providing principles, strategies, and engineering solutions... We argue that the statute misrepresented by Mr. Vogler clearly limits the County's consideration of Peril of Flood requirements to redevelopment, rather than new development as asserted by Mr. Vogler."
The next date that texts appeared between Hopes and Beruff was on April 11—ten days before the peril of flood text amendment was set to be heard and adopted in a BOCC land use meeting.
On April 11, Hopes sends Beruff a text at 10:32 a.m. informing him that he is unavailable. Within a few seconds, Hopes sent Beruff another text telling him, "Five minutes," to which Beruff immediately replied with a "Thank you" and again added the praying hands emoji.
The text records obtained by FLCGA showed that several text exchanges occurred between Hopes, other county employees, and at least one commissioner around the peril of flood issue. The content of the texts appeared directly related to either the land use meeting where peril of flood was set to return to the board, or directly to the county-initiated text amendment itself.
3:02 p.m. Manatee County PIO texts Hopes writing, "We are ready for you… Channel 8 is on the 9th-floor conference room."
3:56 p.m. Courtney DePol sends a text message to Hopes that read, "I apologize for the miscommunication and take full responsibility. Nicole (Knapp) just sent you the updated language and slides- it’s in your email. The language will be updated and reflected in tomorrow's updated memo."
4:02 p.m. DePol sent another text, this time in a group message to Hopes and Deputy County Administrator Charlie Bishop. DePol told Hopes and Bishop that she intended to reach out to Commissioner Misty Servia to explain the language change. She wrote, "We just replaced 'employs site development techniques' with 'principles, strategies, and engineering solutions'"— a language change that appeared to align with the language suggested by Mr. Vogler in his March 16 letter to Van Ostenbridge and Hopes. Servia was in firm opposition during the November BOCC meeting where seawalls and fill dirt were originally included in the text.
4:18 p.m. DePol again texts Hopes and Bishop with an update on her conversation with Servia, telling them both that after speaking with Servia about the language change, Servia now "understands the change" and "has no issue."
10:30 p.m. Hopes sends a text to County Attorney Bill Clague, "The Chair would like you to be at the land use meeting tomorrow rather than Sara (Sarah Schenk is an assistant county attorney who regularly attends land use meetings). "I will be there in addition to Courtney, perhaps you and Sara can do the same," Hopes told Clague.
The next day during the April 21 land use meeting, which began at 1:30 p.m., approximately an hour into the meeting and during public comment on the comprehensive plan peril of flood text amendment item, Hopes sent Commissioner Vanessa Baugh a text. The text contained a link to News Channel 8's reporting from the day before, Environmentalists fear proposed policy change will impact coastal habitats in Manatee County, in which Hopes was quoted.
Pedicini is a political operative/consultant who manages a Tampa-based political consulting firm, Strategic Image Management (SIMWINS). Pedicini's clients include commissioners elected to the Manatee County Commission in 2020—Van Ostenbridge, Satcher, Baugh, and Kruse. More recently, Pedicini's firm appeared on the campaign finance reports of 2022 primary candidates Mike Rahn, Jason Bearden, and Amanda Ballard.
In TBT’s January reporting, Did a Tampa-based Political Consultant Secretly Participate in the Redistricting of Manatee County?, questions were raised concerning someone by the name of "Anthony" having played a secret role in drawing Manatee County’s redistricting draft maps. Maps that were submitted into the process by Commissioner Baugh who—at the time—claimed to have drawn the draft maps herself. Pedicini's client, Ballard (a Republican) is currently running for the county's District 2 seat, a seat that was of intense consideration during the redistricting process. The map for District 2 that was ultimately adopted is more favorable to a Republican candidate's prospects than the previous district had been.
In March of 2021, Pedicini's name was raised in a BOCC meeting publicly when Commissioner Misty Servia called foul on the level of his involvement in the county's legislative trip to Tallahassee that year. Servia decried the political consultant's attendance at county business meetings with state legislators.
The first texts that appeared among records provided by FLCGA between Pedicini and Hopes were dated March 30. Pedicini reached out to Hopes with a text that read, "Can we chat this afternoon? A couple of small items and some intel."
Hopes responded to Pedicini's text, "Absolutely."
On April 13, Hopes sent a text to Pedicini, writing, "Call me when you get a chance."
Later on April 28, Pedicini messaged Hopes that he would like to connect to discuss "federal issues." Hopes responded that he would call later.
On May 21, Hopes texted Pedicini asking, "Are we keeping you busy?" Pedicini responded immediately, texting back, "I mean" followed immediately by another text from Pedicini which read, "We need a new clerk."
Hopes replied to Pedicini's text about the clerk (presumably Manatee County Clerk of the Courts and Comptroller Angel Colonneso), writing, "Without a doubt."
The day before the May 21 text exchange, Colonneso, whose office also oversees the county's inspector general department, sent Manatee County Commissioners a scathing letter detailing serious concerns with Hopes' performance as county administrator. The clerk's letter was delivered just ahead of a board discussion and vote on whether Hopes' contract should be extended.
The text records obtained by FLCGA showed that Hopes and Deputy County Administrator Rob Reinshuttle sent or received several messages to one another or other individuals about the clerk, related media coverage, and even about Hopes' contract renewal. The texts revealed some of the inner thoughts of Hopes and others in the days following Colonneso's letter to the board on May 20, and the board's vote to renew Hopes' contract on May 24.
5:44 p.m. Reinshuttle texts Hopes to ask if he had "read the article?"
"Scott, Reinshuttle may be getting two nice pensions, but Bob gets nothing," Reinshuttle included a smiley face at the end of his text.
7:02 a.m. Hopes sends a text to Byron Shinn, whose firm conducted external audits for the school board while Hopes was a member. Hopes wrote, "I guess you have seen that Angel has gone on the attack! They are throwing all they have, won't work, has just galvanized my supporters!"
Shinn responded to Hopes' text, "I am not in that loop. Call me when you have a minute."
12:53 p.m. Reinshuttle texts Van Ostenbridge writing, "Good job on the press release," presumably referring to Van Ostenbridge's reply to the clerk's letter which was put out by the county PIO the day before.
7:33 p.m. Hopes sends a text to himself with the link to ABC7's reporting on Van Ostenbridge's press response to the clerk's letter.
7:28 a.m. Reinshuttle texts Hopes a link to reporting in the Herald Tribune about the clerk's letter and Van Ostenbridge's response to the letter. Reinshuttle included, "I may sue these people."
Hopes replied to Reinshuttle's text telling him to "sit tight" and that they need to wait and "ride this out."
"They will fall into the deep hole they have dug for themselves," Hopes wrote to Reinshuttle. "We don't need to do it for them."
7:34 a.m. Reinshuttle sends the same link to Charlie Bishop that he sent to Hopes at 7:28 a.m., telling Bishop, "I’m going to sue these people."
2:06 p.m. Charlie Bishop sends a text to Hopes after the board voted to extend his contract despite the clerk’s warnings, "Congratulations," Bishop wrote.
Hopes responded to Bishop less than a minute later writing, "Thanks, now the fun begins."
Bishop immediately responds to Hopes with a text stating, "We are ready for it!"
3:16 p.m. Texts begin to arrive on Hopes' phone from former Manatee School Board member John Colon. Colon initiated the text exchange with a message that read, "I see your girl Misty is going off the rails today."
Hopes replied, "Yes, the three of them voted against my contract."
"So, you're OK right?" Colon asked.
"Yes, but $15k less than I wanted," replied Hopes.
"Now you know how to give them the treatment that they deserve!" Colon responded to Hopes.
Hopes texted back, "Agree totally."
7:56 a.m. Pedicini texts Hopes, asking "Where is the 600 number coming from? Employees." (Benac's op-ed cited a figure of "600 employees" who had left the county under Hopes' leadership.)
11:33 a.m. Hopes responds to Pedicini, telling him that he is working to get employee departure and hire numbers. "We are running the numbers to give to you."
"Thank you," Pedicini writes back.
8:50 a.m. Reinshuttle sends a text to Hopes, "Scott, as much as I share being pissed off for Tuesday, I think it is a mistake to cut off Misty and Carol. This will come back to bite you."
In the days after the board's vote to extend Hopes' contract, Commissioners Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore both stated publicly that Hopes was retaliating against them by clearing his calendar of any appointments with the two, including canceling all briefings and updates. Both commissioners had supported a motion to place Hopes on paid administrative leave instead of extending his contract, barring an investigation into the clerk's concerns.
9:52 a.m. Reinshuttle sends another text to Hopes, "I think you should be very cautious talking in directors' meetings. I know a lot of it is frustration with events, but several of these people are not in your corner even though they smile to your face. All of it goes back to commissioners. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were recording on their phones."
9:26 a.m. Reinshuttle sends a lengthy text to Hopes, "Scott, I think now is the time to hire Ron Sachs, they have expertise in fighting fires, and that’s what we have right now… I think we need to flood the media with positivity and delineate all the good things that are happening. Ron has already met with commissioners and so it won’t be a surprise to them that we are getting the support. I hope you pull the trigger on this soon."
Hopes responded to Reinshuttle’s message about 20 minutes later telling him to, "Set it up."
Ron Sachs is a Tallahassee-based public relations and government communication adviser. His company website tells potential clients, "We deliver bold, game-changing communications solutions that help you conquer your toughest challenges, shift momentum in your favor, and overcome pain points that keep you up at night."
5:37 p.m. Reinshuttle sends Hopes the link to an op-ed written by former Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac published by TBT in which she references the clerk's warning letter to the board. "It’s time to call Ron Sachs or someone like that," Reinshuttle wrote. Hopes replies, writing that he agreed with Reinshuttle.
11:15 a.m. Reinshuttle sends a text to Van Ostenbridge sharing the link to Betsy Benac’s op-ed and writing, "This dishonorable former commissioner called me a double-dipper and you a racist, we should sue her."
Van Ostenbridge replies to Reinshuttle, "Haha, that is for you to do, I am a public official, I asked for this."
Reinshuttle writes back to Van Ostenbridge that Benac's accusations are false and calls her "loathsome." Van Ostenbridge responds in agreement, "True. She’s a c*nt." (offensive/derogatory word for a female)
4:40 p.m. Reinshuttle sends Hopes a text, "We are coming up with a summer in Manatee County featuring you riding the bus or trolley to the beach or GT Bray, biking at Robinsons, enjoying the beaches with you at the lifeguard stations, sliding down the pool, or fishing at Jiggs. It will give you an everyman persona and help change impressions. May involve employees on it, it will be a video."
During a BOCC budget work session on the same day, the clerk’s budget was "flagged" by Commissioner Van Ostenbridge. Commissioner Baugh supported the action. At issue was the clerk’s request for funding for two additional inspector generals, which the clerk stated her office required to effectively conduct work.
The topic of the clerk's budget was never raised during the BOCC budget reconciliation meeting in July, and the budget work session that usually is held in August was canceled.
Without the matter having been raised again in a BOCC meeting, it remains unclear if the intention of the administrator is to deny the clerk's request for funding for the support of two additional inspector general positions. The BOCC will hold its first of two required public hearings on the budget on September 7. The final public hearing where the administrator’s finalized budget will be approved by the board is set for September 14.
Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter for The Bradenton Times. She covers local government and entertainment news. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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