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East County Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2022 3 months ago

Inspector general's report tells of favoritism in Manatee County's building department

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Manatee County administrator says he will review reported misconduct before deciding upon a course of action.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

The Manatee County version of "War and Peace" was released to the public March 22.

OK, so the Manatee County Building and Development Services Code Enforcement Division Investigation was not 1,225 pages. But it was 93 pages if you printed out all the exhibits attached to the 52-page report that was completed by Manatee County Inspector General Lori Stephens and her team of Bobbie Windham (deputy inspector general), Jennifer Bal (senior internal auditor), Martye Gruhl (project auditor), Glen Riley (senior internal auditor) and Lizette Peterson (internal auditor).

The investigation was launched to determine if the Building and Development Services Department's Code Enforcement Division was offering favoritism and basically acting with general misconduct. Those pages of the report read like a Perry Mason episode, with investigators trying to sift through he said/she said testimony, back-room deals and threats of career destruction.

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Code Enforcement Officer Tanya Shaw started the investigation rolling late in March 2021 when she made a report to the office of Clerk of the Circuit Court & Comptroller Angel Colonneso. Shaw said she was told to look the other way when it came to code violations at a Myakka City property — 47 acres along State Road 70 that now is called "The Woods of Mallaranny" — being groomed to be the site of the Sarasota Medieval Fair.

A year later, the extent of favoritism and misconduct is murky at best, other than the actual confirmation that it did exist.

County commissioners and Administrator Scott Hopes have been briefed on the report, although at deadline during the March 22 Commission meeting Hopes said he had yet to read through the entire report. His preliminary reaction was that the report said there were findings that confirmed favoritism.

“They have concluded their investigation and the allegations related to favoritism were founded,” Hopes said.

He also said the issues at the Myakka City property were only a part of the problem uncovered by the investigation.

“It refers to a number of problems, not just Myakka,” he said. “In fact, I think the situation in Myakka was almost a non-event compared to some of the other findings around favoritism (in the Building and Development Services Department).”

The report listed allegations and then findings for each. As far as the allegation Code Enforcement was "not properly investigating complaints received regarding construction on property in Myakka City, owned by Jeremy Croteau, because of (county) management's relationship with Croteau's mother, Kathy Croteau, a (then-) Sarasota County Building official," the allegation was found to be partially substantiated.

An allegation that "the Building and Development Services and Code Enforcement management instructed staff to close cases and not enforce Manatee County codes due to personal/professional relationships" was substantiated.

An allegation that "Someone other than Officer Shaw entered notes and signed off/closed cases in her name" was unsubstantiated.

It should be noted that on Sept. 11, 2021, the Code Enforcement Division was placed under the direction of the Public Safety Department and the Building and Development Services Department was renamed the Development Services Department. 

To give an idea of the scope of the investigation, consider that in investigating just the allegation that Code Enforcement was not properly investigating complaints received about construction taking place on the Croteau property because of management's relationship with his mother, Kathy Croteau, the team interviewed the complainant, visited the property, interview the property's neighbors, interviewed county personnel, interviewed state agency personnel (Florida Department of Environmental Protection, FDOT, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, etc), reviewed all documentation (emails, reports, phone documentation) involving the case, and more.

"We are a small office, with five full-time and one part-time (workers)," Stephens said. "This was a lot of information with substantial interviews and documents."

At the end of the report are suggestions, mostly about monitoring the code enforcement department with more documentation, to make sure a repeat doesn't occur in the future.

It should be noted that Building and Development Services Director John Barnott retired in September. The other five department employees who were suspended because of the incident are all back at work. Shaw has since been terminated by the county but Hopes said she is appealing her termination.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh called the findings "sad," but said the investigation was a step in the right direction for the county.

“I think that we need to look at that report and see what changes we need to make to the county," Baugh said. "We need to ask, 'how can we make it more transparent for the residents? How can we give better service to our citizens? How can we improve their quality of life?'”

She said that next month she will be bringing forward an avenue for Manatee County's staff members to file complaints, along with a system to make sure those complaints are properly addressed.

Now it's up to Hopes to decide how to move forward. Hopes was hired by the current commissioners because commissioners said he was the perfect guy to clean house. He will have to determine if the report's findings lead to terminations or not, and he must conduct everything in a transparent manner. He will need to reveal what it cost the taxpayers to conduct such an investigation.

If not, the citizens will be saying, "Same old Manatee County."

To read the entire inspector general's report, go to ManateeClerk.com and go to latest news.

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