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Who Exactly are the Manatee Concerned Citizens?

BRADENTON – During a February 9 meeting, Manatee County Commission chair Vanessa Baugh (R-Dist 5) referenced a mysterious poll that she'd sent to the other commissioners regarding what Manatee County citizens wanted them to do in terms of hiring the next county administrator. The opacity of the group that is heralding it raises questions as to both its legality and intent.

Baugh sent the board the only published reference to the poll, which appeared on Floridapolitics.com, a blog owned by political operative Peter Schorsch. A memo released by rightwing polling firm McLaughlin & Associates said it found that 52 percent of Manatee County voters favor hiring more county employees who worked in the private sector, while 39 percent prefer those with primarily government experience (the blog entry, for some reason, reported those numbers as having been 54 percent and 33 percent, respectively).

Before you put too much stock in either set of numbers, however, you might consider that McLaughlin has been referred to as "the GOP’s worst pollster" since famously blowing the polling on former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s 2014 GOP primary, in which they had Cantor winning by 34 points before he lost to a Tea Party Republican by 12 points. Yes, they were off by 46 percent.

In a poll on our homepage this week, which asked,Do you think it would be better if the next county administrator’s primary experience was in government administration or the private sector?, 77 percent of respondents chose government, while only 23 percent chose private sector.

It is unknown who commissioned the McLaughlin poll, though a shadowy group called Manatee Concerned Citizens was quick to circulate it in a mass email. McLaughlin & Associates did not have anything related to the poll on the "press releases" section of their website and did not respond to a request for more information. It’s important to note that Manatee Concerned Citizens is not registered as a political action committee with the state, which is required by statute for any group making electioneering communications.

The tactics seem curiously similar to that of Florida Citizens for Economic Prosperity, an obscure PAC that used convoluted funding mechanisms to campaign against the City of Bradenton’s referendum on mayoral power on the November ballot, as well as ads designed to engineer public outrage over the county’s Lena Road land acquisition in the initial effort to oust county administrator Cheri Coryea.

Manatee Concerned Citizens has been conducting a disinformation campaign that seems intent on promoting the actions of the new board majority–Baugh and commissioners Kevin Van Ostenbridge (R-Dist 3), James Satcher (R-Dist 1) and George Kruse (R-At Large)–while attacking the board’s minority–commissioners Misty Servia (R-Dist 4), Carol Whitmore (R-At Large) and Reggie Bellamy (D-Dist 2).

The group also sent an email this week regarding the "pop-up" vaccination scandal orchestrated by Baugh, misrepresenting both Whitmore and Servia’s statements to Baugh as having been made toward DeSantis (a tactic repeated when the scandal was brought up on Laura Ingram’s Fox News "political entertainment" show, a term the network routinely uses when its prime time opinion shows are sued for libel).

Oddly, the poll also included a single policy question regarding a new east-county animal services facility approved by the board, noting: "By a two to one margin (60% to 29%), voters disapprove of the Board of Commissioners recently voting to spend $10 million to build a new pet center when other critical infrastructure needs have yet to be met, including 40% who 'strongly disapprove' of this."

As this was a project championed by Commissioner Whitmore and has been raised primarily by allies of the new majority, its inclusion seemed to be a direct shot at the board's longest-serving member. Given that Whitmore has not gone along with the pressure special interest forces have been putting on board members to hire an administrator of their choosing, its presence suggests both who is stirring the pot and why.

The mass email urged recipients to express their outrage to Commissioners Whitmore and Servia, another Republican who's refused to bend a knee and kiss the rings, and even included a cut and paste statement for recipients who might not have been familiar with the issue to use:

Sample Email

Dear Commissioner,

Shame on you for selling out and embarrassing the citizens of Manatee County and for attacking Governor DeSantis and his generous gift of 3,000 vaccines for Manatee County seniors. Please take back your comments and offer an apology to Governor DeSantis. Any senior vaccinated is a step towards saving lives and ending the pandemic.


Manatee County Concerned Citizen

This being Manatee County, there seems to be little doubt that if and when the dots can be connected, all roads will lead to the same politically-connected developers who’ve been behind nearly every consequential dark-money PAC campaign since Citizens United. And, this being Florida, there's little doubt that even if statutes were violated in doing so, there will be no justice dispensed. Matt Bower, a former Manatee Planning Commissioner who twice ran for county commission only to see his hopes dashed by merciless, dark-money attack ad campaigns, agreed.

"I think there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that the same deep-pocketed developers who’ve been funding these exact sort of campaigns in recent elections are behind this effort as well," said Bower. "They didn’t want Coryea to be hired in the first place and have been working to spread disinformation in order to try and engineer outrage among citizens to assist them in getting someone more to their liking installed as county administrator."

The board is scheduled to vote on Coryea's termination at Tueday's meeting.


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