Both federal and Florida state governments sucked the air out of local newsrooms with a raucous 2013. From the government shutdowns and the disastrous launch of federal healthcare exchange in Washington, to the internet cafe scandals, voter suppression and Tallahassee turning down tens of millions in federal dollars to expand healthcare coverage to the needy, there was no shortage of news to report on. However, it was also something of a banner year for local government fiascoes, and it is easy to feel like it was one of the worst on record for citizens of Manatee County.
The year got off to a controversial start when the county commission voted 5-2 (Gallen and DiSabatino dissenting) in favor of a new contract for county administrator Ed Hunzeker. Hunzeker was enrolled in the state's DROP program and was scheduled to retire in late 2014. However, board chair Larry Bustle quietly floated the idea of renegotiating Hunzeker's contract during commissioner comments at the end of the board's first meeting last January.
Bustle would ask and receive permission to “negotiate” a new contract, something that seemed to happen outside of the state's sunshine requirement, a charge Bustle would later answer by saying that despite telling board members and the public that he had in fact “negotiated” the contract that was voted on, he'd merely been a passive observer to the closed-door meetings. Perhaps Mr. Hunzeker negotiated with himself, which would explain a lot, considering the favorable terms he managed to secure. Nonetheless, Bustle did tell the board and public before the vote that he had “negotiated” what he found to be a good deal for all parties, describing it as a small raise which would put Mr. Hunzeker on par with his predecessor.
A closer look would reveal that retaining Hunzeker would cost taxpayers somewhere around $300,000 (and possibly much more, as some costs were incalculable at the time). His new contract included lavish perks and set unprecedented terms, despite the fact that he was still bound by his current contract for more than a year and a half until retiring, and no national search to test the market for a replacement was conducted or even contemplated.
Shortly after, Hunzeker unveiled a plan to close a projected gap in the current indigent health care model by implementing a half-cent sales tax. Hunzeker said that the county had known for years that it would be running out of funds in the corpus that was established by its sale of Manatee Memorial to a private company. What he couldn't explain was why they didn't put it on the November 2012 ballot, rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a special election – which he wanted to have in June, when the least amount of voters would be present.
The campaign to pass the referendum was riddled with disinformation, aided by a shadow campaign, funded mostly by the special interest who stood to gain the most by maintaining the status quo – Universal Health Services, the parent company of Manatee Memorial Hospital. People were erroneously led to believe that voting to pass the sales tax equated to a vote for lowering property taxes. Despite an expensive campaign to fool voters, they were smart enough to see through the propaganda and voted overwhelmingly against the ballot measure.
In June, Manatee County Commissioners once again tried to pull a fast one while the voters were looking the other way. The issue, which would become one of the most controversial in county history, related to a planned development called Long Bar Pointe. First, the board approved the creation of an Urban Service Area, inside of which development oversight would be relaxed. Initially planned to help encourage development of blighted industrial and commercial areas, commissioners – once more against the dissent of DiSabatino and Gallen, as well as the advice of staff – voted to include the coastal area of Sarasota Bay, where politically-connected developer Carlos Beruff was – later in that very same meeting – applying for major modifications to a planned development on a large, ecologically-sensitive tract of land on the most productive area of the bay.
Fortunately, a tropical storm forced them to table the issues and postpone the rest of the meeting. Word got out and thousands petitioned against the development. The rescheduled meeting had to be moved to the convention center, where nearly 1,000 citizens showed up to oppose it. Though some concessions were made and the countywide text amendment being sought was voted down, a more aggressive coastal development was nonethless passed 4-3 – this time with Commissioner Chappie joining DiSabatino and Gallen in opposition.
After transmitting plans to the state, the final vote for approval was scheduled for January 23. If approved, the change to mixed use would forever alter the goals to protect our quality of life and coastal environment. The change to mixed use could then be used to justify economic reasons for destroying the environment; creating a newly-dredged channel and a marina, while disrespecting the rules that are based on science and research. Beruff and his partner Larry Lieberman have sponsored the campaigns of six of the seven board members. On December 23, the applicants withdrew their application for the amendment and the BOCC canceled the January 23 meeting, so stay tuned to see what happens on that issue.
Next, the county commission tried to sneak a major Land Development Code rewrite under the radar. Billed as little more than procedural house cleaning, a mere tidying up of the books if you will, the major changes would have significant impacts on environmental protections. The county quietly opened public comments, which were set to run over the holidays. If not for the Sierra Club, comments would have closed on December 23. Staff had a request for an extension, but did not act. After Sierra made enough noise, the county eventually extended the comment period through January, though it remains unclear if all of the latest information on the proposed changes is even available for review.
Even a rare citizen victory was snatched from the hands of taxpayers when the Robinson Farms application that citizens had won an administrative law judge ruling on was settled with developers to include more density in a Coastal High Hazard Area. Commissioners voted unanimously to allow John and Pat Neal to increase density and add units to a planned development in a rural area of northwest county, despite the fact that it went against the county comp plan and contradicts previous objections from the Department of Community Affairs, while flaunting the "Conclusions of Law" in a more recent decision by an Administrative Law Judge.
Moves like this serve to send the message that even when you win, you don't win, as long as your fight involves the powerful developers who pour money on local politicians in order to see that they always get their way, no matter what.
Finally, commissioners wrapped up the year with more big, yet quiet changes. A controversial new $33 million east-county bridge seems to be in store, despite no real notice to citizens or opportunity for debate. The change was slipped into amendments to the county's capital improvement plan. Though there was technically a public hearing, the item was buried in an agenda release, without the word “bridge” being mentioned. When skeptical citizens commented, commissioners actually suggested that despite approving the connection of two pieces of a road that sat on opposite sides of the Braden River, they weren't really discussing a bridge yet. Perhaps they are considering a tunnel?
Manatee County taxpayers might feel a little bit like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who famously said “I can't get no respect around here!” It remains to be seen whether the disrespect shown by commissioners will impact upcoming elections. In November of 2014, Commissioners Gallen, DiSabatino and Whitmore will be up for re-election.
Among the developer-friendly bloc of Bustle, Whitmore, Benac, Chappie and Baugh, only Whitmore will be on the ballot and she's already drawn a general election opponent in Terri Wonder, who made a name for herself during the Long Bar Pointe showdown. Whitmore was perhaps the loudest supporter of both the half-cent tax and Hunzeker's new contract, while she also provided the swing vote on the Long Bar Pointe map amendment – three key votes that residents are likely to remember for quite some time.
Right down the street, Manatee County taxpayers were provided with more political theater, courtesy of our public school district. 2013 was already off to a disastrous start in the wake of a multi-million dollar budget scandal that ended with former superintendent Tim McGonegal resigning in disgrace and the district enduring a series of interim superintendents, as it conducted a national search for an outside replacement. Retired colonel Rick Mills, who'd spent a dozen years as an assistant superintendent in both Chicago and Minneapolis, was tapped to come in and take over the mess.
Mills' arrival came amidst the Rod Frazier sexual abuse scandal at the district's flagship high school, Manatee, involving an assistant football coach for the school's nationally renowned football team. The incident would lead to five arrests, including felonies for four administrators who'd failed to report allegations of the incident, as required by state law. As if that weren't enough, a second scandal emerged, when it was discovered that a student had a sexual relationship with another district employee – eventually resulting in a pregnancy – and that once again, some of the same administrators had failed to lift a finger when alerted.
On the financial front, the district aggressively made cuts to try to find the nearly $17 million that would be needed to bring the fund balance to the $10 million reserve mandated by the state. They got within about a million dollars when two audits – one by the state and another regarding federal funds – discovered a litany of errors, omissions and illegal practices dating back two previous administrations to the 2005-2006 school year. Those skeletons led to millions upon millions in fines and corrective actions that once again threaten to bring the general fund to its knees.
The ink was barely dry on that bad news when the internal investigation into allegations of financial mismanagement at – you guessed it – Manatee High, once again focused public attention on administrators and coaches. Baseball Coach Dwayne Strong resigned in October, after it was discovered that he did not have the proper state certification to be working for the school and that school funds had been improperly steered toward a private enterprise of his.
The ensuing investigation found that Manatee's legendary football coach Joe Kinnan – who was also the school's Athletic Director – had knowledge of the invents, along with former Manatee Principal Bob Gagnon (who was one of the administrators charged with failing to report and lying to police in the sexual abuse case). Mills recommended that both Kinnan and Gagnon receive 10-day suspensions (though Gagnon is currently suspended without pay until the board considers his recommended termination from the previous incident).
As expected, disciplining Kinnan was met with jeers from everyone from fans to public officials, though none of them had seemed to bother reading the report. For his part, Kinnan has admitted he could have been more diligent in certain oversights, while contending that other accusations were without merit. He said in a statement that he plans to appeal, though he's already announced that he will only be returning to coach football and has no plans to stay on as A.D.
As you can see, keeping up with local governments in Manatee County is a full-time job, which is why the staff at The Bradenton Times is happy to help. We thank all of our readers and advertisers for supporting us in 2013 and look forward to bringing you more fact-based news and analysis without an agenda in 2014. Remember, though national news tends to steal most of the spotlight, it's our local governments who have the greatest impact on our day to day lives. If you want to hold them accountable, stay informed and vote accordingly.