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Yes, Special Interests are Gunning for the County Administrator

Last Sunday, I wrote a column many people took to be a bit far fetched after I opined that the big-government outrage being artificially manufactured over a county land deal by a developer-funded, dark money political action committee was part of a conspiracy to oust our highly-regarded county administrator in order to install a puppet for the development community. By Thursday, however, I looked like Nostradamus. No, I can’t see into the future and, in all honesty, no one had to look or listen very hard to see it coming.

As I explained last week, Carlos Beruff, the politically-connected CEO of Medallion Homes, was not a big fan of former county administrator Ed Hunzeker. Once the latter was pushed into an earlier than planned retirement in early 2019, the developer lobbied hard to name his successor. In a rare case of Beruff not getting his way with a board he’s so heavily invested in, however, the commission rebuked him and hired Cheri Coryea. Coryea, a 30-year-veteran of our county government, had spent a decade earning a stellar reputation as Director of Neighborhood Services–where she built invaluable trust with staff and citizens and forged deep ties to the communities of Manatee County–before being promoted to Deputy County Administrator in 2017.

At the time, that seemed to be the end of it. However, Beruff has proven himself to be the kind of man who doesn’t take a shine to the idea of only getting his way most of the time. He’s ruthlessly competitive and apparently quite patient. After seizing the opportunity to get a slate of three new commissioners on the board in this year’s election, Beruff has got the votes, and those commissioners are clearly wasting no time in carrying out his wishes.

With a seven-member board serving four-year terms, every four years presents the opportunity for a complete new majority to be formed. Beruff made his biggest jump into Manatee County politics in 2012 when he came after TBT publisher and 22-year Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash in the first post-Citizens United election cycle. Beruff poured money into the candidacy of McClash’s opponent, Betsy Benac, a private-sector planner. He was not only the chief benefactor of her campaign war chest but also funded an even more expensive dark-money PAC from which to lob dishonest attack ads that helped Benac squeak by with a 494-vote margin, despite total spending having been around 10-1 in her favor.

That same year, Commissioner Vanessa Baugh rode a mountain of developer campaign cash into the district 5 seat and has been a reliable pro-development and right-wing hot-button issue vote ever since. In 2016, Beruff made a major play for the District 1 seat, backing former state representative Ron Reagan against fellow Republican Priscilla Trace, a tree farmer with deep ties to the north county district. But the builder came up short in that one with Trace winning an upset victory. In the district 3 race, however, Beruff went all in for Stephen Jonsson, a banker he’d had business ties to, and won yet another seat.

In 2018, Misty Servia, another private sector planner and one who’d done high-profile work for Beruff, was elected to the District 4 seat after Robin DiSabatino–who was elected after being backed by the development community in 2010–stepped down. Servia also benefited tremendously from developer financial support and, unsurprisingly, the board remained as pliable to the desires of developers as it had been for the past decade–although, to their credit, both DiSabatino and Servia were willing to show much more independence than most developer-backed candidates and were deeply engaged with and responsive to their south county district.

The end result was Beruff and his developer cronies not having quite the level of influence they sought. Benac and Servia, both of whom had long stints as staff planners for the county before going into the private sector, had tremendous appreciation for the value that Coryea’s unrivaled work ethic and positive impact on staff morale brought to the table. Carol Whitmore, the board’s longest-serving member, was perhaps Coryea’s most vocal proponent, and Reggie Bellamy, who was elected to the District 2 seat in 2018, has proven himself to be arguably the most independent and unflappable commissioner on the board in recent weeks, after quietly and patiently learning the many intricacies of the position over his first two years in office. As such, Baugh and Jonsson wound up forming something of a two-person minority on this and other issues.

In 2020, however, Benac decided not to run, as did Jonsson. But where some may have seen vulnerability, Beruff saw opportunity. He heavily backed real estate financier George Kruse to replace Benac in District 6, same for Van Ostenbridge in Jonsson’s district 3, while a PAC he poured money into went in hard on scurrilous attack ads against Priscilla Trace in district 1 that benefitted Satcher tremendously in his surprise upset. Also, when Kruse–who’d originally filed to run against Trace in District 1 and only switched to the District 6 race when Benac dropped out–changed races, it was a woman who worked for Beruff who kicked in a couple grand at the last moment to help pay for Satcher’s ballot qualification fee, and then Pat Neal and his associates helped fund his campaign in the general election.

During election season, Kruse, Van Ostenbridge, Satcher, and Baugh were in lockstep, selling a unified message of right-wing conservative dogma. The self-styled Fantastic Four derided mask mandates and curfews during the height of the COVID crisis and hit the other high notes regarding reigning in big government, etc, etc. Let’s be honest, it’s not hard to find a receptive crowd around here for such chants, and if you can get those folks riled up about RINOs, closet liberals, and everything from COVID conspiracies to George Soros and Antifa, the pitchforks are soon to follow and there are few things as effective as populist anger when it comes to avoiding real issues of public policy. And, as Thursday demonstrated, harnessing that sort of populist rage can be quite effective if you know where to point it.

It seems clear at this point that all of the mysterious hoopla over the $32 million dollar purchase was at least partially (and possibly completely) for the benefit of having some thin veneer with which to cover the real reason Coryea is being targeted. So, while we’re not quite yet at the point where it’s kosher to come right out and say, She’s gotta go because Carlos won the election and elections have consequences, at Thursday’s meeting, it got pretty close.

Out of nowhere, Van Ostenbridge calmly asserted that he liked Coryea as a person and respected the hard work she’d put in but said he had a different vision for the county, and that while Coryea was more public sector, he felt that government was essentially a giant corporation and needed to be run like one. Servia and Whitmore–both of whom supported Van Ostenbridge over his opponent (fellow Republican Matt Bower) in this year’s race–were appalled by Van Ostenbridge’s motion and called him out sternly.

Servia belittled Van Ostenbridge’s objectively-thin resume and lack of big-business experience in ticking off a list of reasons that firing a chief executive on essentially your first day on the job isn’t good business. For Whitmore, who was driven to tears at one point, it was more personal. She noted that she’d "supported him 100 percent" in his candidacy but said she was "ashamed" of having done so in light of his actions in a scene that called to mind a mother scolding a child. For his part, Van Ostenbridge remained unphased.

Commissioner Bellamy gave perhaps the most pointed critique of the notion that someone could know enough about the way things operated to make such a move right out of the gates, acknowledging that, like Whitmore, he’d heard that this had been in the works, agreeing that the whole ordeal had a decidedly orchestrated feel to it. Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller Angel Colonesso was so unnerved by what she’d seen monitoring the meeting from across the street that she actually went over to the commission chambers to implore the new commissioners to have some humility and learn the job and the way county government functioned before doing something so potentially "reckless." Even recently retired Bradenton City Councilman Gene Gallo texted into the meeting to voice his profound displeasure.

But none of it moved the needle. Baugh, Satcher, Van Ostenbridge, and Kruse told everyone to calm down and take a deep breath. After all,nothing was being decided today. They were just opening a dialog, and there was no need for the decorum of the meeting to devolve into such negative and disrespectful exchanges, according to Van Ostenbridge. After Commissioner Bellamy pleaded to at least push the decision back until after the holidays, a special meeting was scheduled for January 6, during which the new four-vote majority can indeed show Coryea the door while gaining free reign to hire anyone they (read Beruff) wish.

The only thing likely to stop that is a loud public outrage, which has already begun as emails poured into the board in support of Coryea almost immediately. But it seems unlikely that four commissioners just elected to four-year terms will feel more pressure from voters than the developers who got them there. After all, if there was cause for that to be the case, most of them wouldn’t be in office in the first place. They are deeply mistaken, however, if they believe they were elected to do just this.

Indeed, they may have been chosen by developersfor that reason, but they were electedprimarily because developers bought their seats by way of pouring so much money into attack campaigns as to ensure victory and because they themselves were willing to run dirty. If they allow whatever they hear in the echo chamber of partisan electoral politics to convince themselves that anywhere near a sizable majority of those votes came from people who closely follow the minutia of local government and not by those swayed by greasy PAC ads, it would be an act of profound self-delusion. It is an unfortunate truth that candidates who choose to make that devil's bargain never get to know if they could have been elected by the merits of their ideas.

Back here, in the world of reality, Coryea is an outstanding public servant–arguably the best county administrator Manatee has ever had–and the very fact that she was hired into that position was something of an anomaly in that internal talent rising from the entry-level ranks to the pinnacle of an organization has largely become a thing of the past in both the public and private sectors. Instead, a gilded club of experienced executives are routinely passed around from one enterprise to the next regardless of merit. Getting into the club is the key, and once you’ve been stamped with the right badges, you’ve usually gotta mess the bed royally before you’re tossed off the gravy train.

That executive circuit is also filled with the type of people who understand the more nuanced politics of the job and know how to keep the right people happy. Very rarely are you lucky enough to get someone who’s climbed the ladder from the bottom to the top, learning the intricacies of the process and the value of every role, while gaining the trust and respect of both the enterprises of local government and the community in which she’s lived and served the way that Coryea has.

The idea that merely fulfilling her duty by executing the will of the board on a project that began under the previous administration is somehow a fireable offense is beyond laughable, which is why that faction of the board had no choice but to move that she be removed without cause, lest they find themselves in an expensive legal entanglement with virtually no chance of winning. And giving 15 days notice that they’d be deciding whether or not to terminate her wasn’t opening a conversation–it was the absolute maximum that could be done. As the county attorney’s office pointed out during the meeting, firing her that day wasn’t a possibility, as per her contract.

But I’m wasting words in trying to intellectualize a sham reason that has no intellectual underpinnings in the first place. As I’ve noted, this isn’t about Coryea’s performance. It’s about the guy who spent a whole lot of money buying those seats getting what he wants. Beruff–who’s been abetted in the effort by fellow developer Pat Neal, who came all the way down to the chambers on a day he had no business before the board to rail against the land deal after funding some of the same PACs–wants Coryea out and someone who understands his expectations more clearly in. And unless one of the three new commissioners suddenly does a complete 180 and expresses an opinion that does not reflect Beruff’s, or the response from the community is so visceral as to cause the developer to rethink his play, he’s likely to get what he wants. And once he does, it would seem as if the sky would be the limit in terms of whatever other influence he and Neal wish to exert.

Elections really do have consequences, and whether or not you like people like Beruff and Neal or agree with their philosophies, you’ve gotta admit that they’ve refined and perhaps even perfected how to get what they want in Manatee County. Make elections about touchstone cultural issues that reflect the national divide, pour money into baseless attack ads against well-intentioned grass-roots candidates, and find their own people who are more than willing to take the dirty needle of dark-money PACs and win elections by going shamefully negative on their opponents.

Time and again I’m asked why political ads are so negative and my answer is always the same: if you can stand to look at yourself in the mirror, it’s the best way to win. Beruff and Neal know that, and so do the candidates who eagerly accept their help. For historical proof, just look at the fate of Republican incumbents and candidates who've refused to go dirty even when those tactics were used against them by members of their own party–McClash, Trace, Matt Bower, and on and on.

In today’s hyper-charged political environment, it doesn’t take much dirty work to gin up populist anger to levels somewhere between red scare McCarthyism and the Salem Witch Trials. From Drill, Baby, Drill to Lock them Up, to Build the Wall, give people a reason to be mad at the government and a growing portion of them will angrily chant along regardless of how shallow their understanding of the subjects involved prove to be. But despite the popularity of economic libertarianism among those who lack even a foundational grasp of economics, government is nothing like a big corporation at all, nor is it something that works better when it’s stripped down to a skeleton frame. Government is, in essence, the way that societies take care of themselves, particularly those whose blended economies are predominantly-driven by free markets.

In reality, government is not the thing that gets in the way nearly as often as it’s the thing that protects its citizens from the inherent dangers of the profit-motive. If the market cured all ills, needed only the courts for remedy, and taxes were only needed to build roads and raise armies as such dogma argues, it would indeed be a simpler thing. But history has mercilessly proven otherwise. And the greatest threat to good government has never been bureaucrats or even the elected politicians but rather the special interests from that private sector who so routinely corrupt the process before lamenting the very flaws they have perpetuated and perversely suggesting that the answer is to do away with the agencies that have been corrupted in favor of the very forces that have corrupted them, as so that they might go about their business unencumbered by any regulation whatsoever.

And you’d better believe that if this coup is successful, the impacts will be much more far-reaching than most people who don’t analyze public policy for a living can imagine. Sure, it might get even easier to build a home in Manatee County where it’s already artificially cheap and thoroughly streamlined. There’ll be more scattershot development driven by the bottom line rather than actual planning, more toxic runoff will continue to spill into the gulf, and the traffic will continue to get much worse. The urban service corridor map will be extended far east in order to make development more profitable at the expense of existing taxpayers.

But the real differences will be seen in the countless ways that government serves the community beyond rubber-stamping land development. Wait until the next Hurricane Irma hits, or the economic recession we recently entered gets worse with county and state coffers already hard hit by depressed sales tax revenue. Wait until the next epic algal bloom shuts down tourism and unabated wetland destruction wreaks further havoc on our waterways. Watch as the top talent follows Coryea out the door, taking even more institutional knowledge with them.

Slogans and ideology are no substitute for competence, intellect, and hard-earned experience. Cheri Coryea has demonstrated all of those qualities in spades, and if anyone could have ever doubted her commitment to this county, the way she has comported herself throughout this pandemic–a challenge I wouldn’t wish on any public administrator–would have put it to rest with extreme prejudice. Being for competent, responsive, and empathetic government and being against Coryea are mutually exclusive propositions in my opinion, and if the county loses her service to some political pissing match, we will all be the worse for it.

Click here for video of the portion of the special meeting that deals with Coryea's employment. Click here to email county commissioners and let them know how you feel about the issue.

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County governmentsince 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University, where he earned a degree in Government. He later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Clickherefor his bio. Dennis's latest novel, Sacred Hearts, is availablehere.


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