Vanessa Baugh’s handling of the pop-up vaccine clinic might just be what the Manatee County commissioners needed to get on track.
Disruption is hard. Often messy. Full of strife and stress.
Especially in politics.
The metaphorical daggers, snippy barbs and disrespect come out. And the new gang in charge is prone to rookie mistakes, mistakes that make the Old Guard say to voters, “See, we told you those people weren’t up to the job.”
This is what Manatee County citizens have been watching ever since the November elections. A new majority took control of the Manatee County Commission, with three of the four in the group being elected for the first time — Commissioners George Kruse, Kevin Ostenbridge and James Satcher.
What a beginning. And we thought the Manatee County School Board was dysfunctional.
A recap of some of the lowlights:
Practically day one on the job, Ostenbridge, with support from Kruse and Satcher, leads an effort to follow through on a campaign promise to bring less government, less spending and lower taxes to Manatee taxpayers. And how best to do that? Sack the person at the top: Manatee County Administrator Cheri Coryea.
Why waste time? If you’re going to disrupt an entire system, be bold. Be Trumpian. To heck with the advice of a wise newspaper publisher decades ago: “On your first day,” he advised his proteges, “do not move an ashtray. Do not move a chair.” Don’t change a thing. Spend your first few weeks, months learning how the place operates, who does what and the strong and weak links.
It’s difficult to recover from a bad start — as we’re witnessing in Manatee. Hasty change is often the Miracle Gro for distrust, dissension and cultural disintegration.
Series of disruptions
The Coryea crusade was just the start. One month later, Michael Barfield, the region’s lead (watch)dog in the pursuit of Sunshine Law violations for the American Civil Liberties Union, sued Ostenbridge, Kruse, Satcher and Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh. He’s alleging the foursome colluded out of the sunshine to fire Coryea.
Then this: In late January, Kruse admits to the world he had an extramarital affair before the election. Kruse revealed to his fellow commissioners that he heard rumors over a weekend that Commissioner Carol Whitmore, a longtime member of the commission Old Guard, was spreading information about his affair. Whitmore said photos connected to the affair had been circulating in the community.
Then this: Reports surfaced in early February that Satcher bounced a $10 check to the state to pay for his election certification. Oh, my — an elected official overseeing a nearly $1 billion budget sends off a bad check. Satcher explained he was in the process of switching banks.
Then the whopper: The story we all know — Baugh’s handling of the now infamous Gov. Ron DeSantis pop-up vaccination clinic in Lakewood Ranch.
By now, you’ve heard some or most of the details. The story, after all, and to the chagrin of the commissioners, did go national at one point on Fox News.
It’s a classic case of politics that turned into what people hate about politics, as well as a case of how no good deeds go unpunished. Everything that occurred pretty much followed a predictable script. And, of course, it had to happen in Manatee County and add to the strife and discord on the Manatee County Commission.
Politics is self-interest
First, set the baseline. As we all know, in politics rarely is anything done purely for the benefit of the citizenry. Politicians want to be reelected, so politicians’ actions almost universally have self-interest at the root of what they do — no matter how sincere they are about being a true public servant.
Look at it this way: DeSantis sincerely is trying as best he can to get as many Floridians vaccinated as quickly as he can.
At the same time, he knows his handling of the pandemic likely will determine whether he earns a second term. So he is going to try to go to as many communities as he can in 2021 to distribute vaccines. As a health care CEO told us, “He’s like Santa Claus handing out presents.”
Toward that end, self-interested politician DeSantis has a conversation with one of his trusted adviser-supporter-donors, Pat Neal, longtime Manatee-Sarasota home builder, owner of Neal Communities.
That’s what politicians do. They talk to people they know and people they know who can get things done.
DeSantis offers up 3,000 additional vaccines for Manatee County, and he wants to distribute them in a place with a lot of 65-plus residents — just as he has done in the Villages in Central Florida and multiple other spots around the state.
“Seniors first,” the governor says often.
Neal, a man of action, of course wants to help the governor, the state and Manatee residents. He then reaches out to a peer, Rex Jensen, CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch and developer of Lakewood Ranch, one of the premier planned communities in Florida.
Jensen hears the governor’s request and, like Neal, wants to help. Not because he expects special favors but because that’s what you do. Most people know this: All success starts with charity — helping someone else. At the same time, Jensen also knows: You don’t tell the governor no. It’s not good business or human decency.
Jensen takes the governor’s request to next most logical helper — Baugh, Lakewood Ranch’s district commissioner and chair of the commission.
Like most people in her position, when Baugh hears a request from the governor and leader of her political party, she wants to deliver. Almost all of us would be flattered to be involved with the governor and would want to do our best to come through for him. Who knows where success could lead?
Now add this element: Time is short. Baugh must act fast.
She scrambles to organize the details — all with the good, honorable intentions. Just like DeSantis, Neal and Jensen.
But in the process, she makes mistake No. 1: She fails, or neglects, to inform her fellow six commissioners what she is doing. We don’t know if that was intentional; Baugh did not return our request for an interview.
She pays a dear price. When word spreads, at the next Tuesday meeting, her fellow commissioners scold her: 1) for not letting them know; and 2) worse, for selecting the recipients from two ZIP codes in her area.
This gaffe roils Baugh’s colleagues. All of them have been telling their constituents that commissioners are committed to the county’s lottery system for the vaccines, and there would be no exceptions. But Baugh has betrayed that assurance.
Then it gets worse. Mistake No. 2: An email Baugh sent to one of the county employees helping her organize the pop-up clinic is sent to a Bradenton Herald reporter. The reporter reveals that the list of 3,000 people to receive the vaccine include Baugh, Jensen, Jensen’s father and two of Baugh’s former neighbors.
‘S’ hits the fan
The proverbial S hits the fan.
You saw and heard the stories — DeSantis and Baugh accused of doing back-door, special favors for their political friends.
The daily press goes into overdrive. Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist Chris Anderson cited Florida Statute 112.313: “No public officer shall corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position to secure a special privilege or benefit for himself, herself or others.”
He peppers his column with pejorative, snide adjectives and phrases that so often reveal the mindset of media reporters: calling the clinic “slippery paybacks to wealthy donors or deceitful favors for friends and neighbors”; vaccines “to the beautiful people of Lakewood Ranch”; “Baugh, a fanatical DeSantis supporter.”
The League of Women Voters of Manatee County called for Baugh to resign. Even Congressman Charlie Crist weighed in, calling for the Department of Justice to investigate DeSantis’ handling of the vaccines.
To her credit, Baugh owned up to her actions at the Feb. 18 commission meeting. “I want to apologize to all the residents whom I have disappointed in actions I have taken,” she said at the start of a 10-minute apology. “Let me say I love Manatee County, always have. I have always tried to do what was best for her, Manatee County.”
She said repeatedly she takes full responsibility for it all — not telling her colleagues, submitting the list of names from two ZIP codes and submitting her own name (at the same time noting that she did not receive the vaccine at the pop-up). She apologized to the governor.
You could say the pop-up clinic was the height of embarrassment for this new Manatee County Commission. But if you listened to Baugh’s apology and the comments from her colleagues afterward — they appreciated her apology and taking full responsibility — that meeting should stand as a turning point for the commission. Crises and calamities often bring disparate people together and can end disruption and discord.
Reggie Bellamy, the lone Democrat on the commission, struck a tone at the Feb. 18 meeting that, hopefully, resonated with the commissioners:
“In a situation like this, all of us need to examine ourselves. What could we have done differently? What could we have done better? Because we still have 410,000 people out there who trust us to be public servants and leaders and count on us to perform the best that we can so we can make our county the best we can.”
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.