BRADENTON — Manatee County Attorney Mitchell Palmer instructed the Board of County Commissioners to not speak of or answer any questions pertaining to Linda Molto's request to "have the county commission petition President Obama to consider making the sea grass and mangroves in Sarasota Bay a Contributing Resource to the Historic Fishing Village of Cortez." Palmer's response: "No Comment, the matter pertains to a Bert Harris Act law suit."
At Tuesday's BOCC work session, a handful of Cortez residents waited until the two items on the agenda were concluded, then Molto stepped forward to address the board. Chairman Bustle quickly closed the meeting by smacking the gavel and saying, "meeting is over."
Bustle had been closely watching the small group and knew they were residents of Cortez. Those residents, having addressed the commission in the past, weren't going to leave. "We came here, waited and Linda Molto has something she wants to say," said Cortez resident Joe Kane to Bustle.
But Bustle insisted the meeting was closed and replied, "We only address the agenda items at work sessions,"
This reporter said, "That's not true; you do all the time, you allow people to speak at work sessions." Then Commissioner DiSabatino looked at Bustle and affirmed, "You do."
As Bustle turned to walk to the door, DiSabatino looked at Commissioner Michael Gallen (BOCC Vice-Chairman) and said, "Michael, are you prepared to reopen the meeting?" at which point Bustle turned back around to his chair. Bustle said he would hear what the residents had to say and proceeded to reconvene the meeting.
Bustle has shown a pronounced tendency to be selective about almost everything he does at the dais. It was just a week ago when Manatee Memorial staff and employees petitioned, a third time, for the county to adopt a half-cent sales tax to help pay for the indigent health care hospital administrators fear will become problematic once the fund that now pays the bills is exhausted.
Bustle had voted for the tax, and he also allowed the pro tax speakers to exceed the three minute limit at the podium. For most of the speakers that day, he didn't even turn the timer on, though when it's an issue he's found contentious, he can be a downright stickler with the buzzer.
Bustle has threatened to shut down meetings after one or two people applaud in support of something he might not favor. "Any more outbursts, and I will close this meeting," Bustle has said on many past occasions. On that day, however, he allowed standing ovations in support of the pro-indigent health care sales tax lobby – again a practice that is not uncommon when speakers see eye to eye with the chair.
At Tuesday's meeting, Molto delivered her request:
"We are here to request this commission petition President Barack Obama to exercise his executive privilege and classify the sea grass and mangroves west of Long Bar Pointe as a national park and/or a "Contributing Property" to the National Registered Historical District, the Village of Cortez.
Of the more than one million properties on the National Register, 80,000 are listed individually. The remainder are 'contributing resources' for those historical districts. The sea grass, and the mature stand of mangroves boarding it, more than qualify as a Contributing Resource.
One of the ways the President could quickly do this is through the Antiquities Act of 1906. The law gives the President of the United States the authority to, by executive order, restrict the use of particular public land owned by the government.
We are requesting this commission craft a letter to the President appealing the case, and take every effort available to protect this sensitive and historical property, because it more than qualifies to be deemed worthy of preservation.
Time is of the essence. Act now please."
After Molto's request, three more speakers: Joe Kane; Barbara Angelucci and Ed Goff spoke in support of the proposal.
Commissioners often stand on their soapbox voicing their commitment to preserving the Village of Cortez and its fishing legacy, but Molto's request left most of the commission stunned and dazed; almost mourning. Could it be that they knew the fate they had already dealt to Cortez's future was one that has little room for quaint things like the village's legacy?
Clearly, the commissioners were shocked, and that is when County Attorney Palmer rescued them from their discombobulation, instructing them to not discuss the issue with anyone.
Palmer claimed that Molto had mentioned "Long Bar Pointe," and that it was involved in "Bert Harris Act" litigation and that any conversation could put the suit in jeopardy.
This reporter responded to Palmer, "There was nothing in Molto's request that had anything to do with Long Bar Pointe."
Palmer replied, "Long Bar Pointe was mentioned."
"Only as a landmark reference, like 'across the street from Publix'," I said. "It was just referencing the nearest identifiable piece of land."
Palmer replied, "It doesn't matter."
Taking away the right of a citizen to petition their elected official is illicit, if the reason for doing so is phony. To pinpoint a location on a map by referencing the nearest property does not compromise any judicial proceedings.
What Molto was doing was asking the commission to help her preserve their historical village's heritage, through a practice that has been requested countless times before in this country's history.
But Palmer's blunder – confusing the verbiage of Molto's request – brings more attention to a deal many people feel was a colossal con perpetrated on to the people of Manatee and has now turned into an $18 million dollar Bert Harris Act law suit against the county.
The deal dates back more than a year to the civic center meeting for Long Bar Pointe, when county attorneys Micky Palmer and Bill Clague – at the request of Commissioner Carol Whitmore – came to a supposed agreement with Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman to remove from their request, plans for a marina in an application for amending the project.
Over 1,200 citizens attended the meeting in Palmetto, which lasted more than 12 hours, with most of the public speakers objecting to the project, demanding the marina not be built because of its impact on ecologically-sensitive waters. Whitmore had told Beruff and Lieberman that the vote wouldn't pass with the marina in the mix and for the attorneys to convince the applicant to get-it-out in order for the project to go forward.
All of the stakeholders (developers and attorneys) returned 15 minutes later and said that the deal had been made. Their assurances were enough for Commissioner Whitmore to cast the swing vote, and the future use map amendment passed 4-3 (DiSabatino, Gallen and Chappie – whose district includes Cortez – dissenting).
Two months ago, I requested a copy of that contract, for the supposed deal made in the 11th hour of that August 6, 2013 meeting. I never got it, and Palmer told me yesterday that it doesn't exist, that the proposed text amendment had been withdrawn and the future use map amendment transmitted to Tallahassee. I asked if it didn't seem to him like the people at that meeting who could have only understood that the both sides had come to an agreement would have to feel duped. He said it did not.
Of course Beruff and company later filed an $18 million dollar lawsuit against Manatee County for taking the marina out of the mix of the now-approved Long Bar Pointe project. So it seems as though the board passed it 4-3, at least somewhat based on those assurances, only to get sued over the piece that their approval supposedly hinged on. Take it out now, get your approval, come back and sue for it later. If any of the commissioners who voted in favor of the map use amendment feel duped, they haven't said so. A look at their campaign contributions might suggest why.
There seem to be some questions as to how those legal maneuverings went sour, but the real question would seem to be, why aren't all of the commissioners excited and thrilled that the Cortez Village's legacy and culture has a glimpse of hope? The thanks goes out to the zeal of Cortezians, because the hope sure didn't come from the commission. Still, they have a chance to try and save the day. Let's see if they take it.
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