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East County Tuesday, Mar. 29, 2022 4 months ago

Manatee commissioner says every department needs analysis to stop 'culture of corruption'

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Vanessa Baugh says an inspector general's report that identified favoritism in code enforcement is the "tip of the iceberg."
by: Ian Swaby Staff Writer

While Manatee County officials voiced concern last week about an inspector general's report that identified favoritism among county employees when it came to dealing with the public, Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said she is sure the report is "just the tip of the iceberg."

"There is so much more," Baugh said March 28. "Obviously, (the county commissioners) need to talk to the county administrator about ways to make sure these things don't take place again."

Baugh said a thorough examination needs to take place in every county department.

"We have to get that under control," she said.

She also said that as early as April 8 she wanted to present a transparency and ethics policy for the County Commission to follow.

Baugh said it will be important to enforce whatever policies are put into place by Administrator Scott Hopes and to make sure the county staff members are following his direction.

"Our administrator is putting things into place so we can stop of culture of corruption," she said.

Baugh already has asked the state attorney's office to look at 52-page report presented by Manatee County Inspector General Lori Stephens on March 22. 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.

Code Enforcement Officer Tanya Shaw prompted the investigation 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.

The report did confirm instances of favoritism and indicated the handling of certain cases and permits, including that of the Myakka property by Shaw and others, was not performed in accordance with policy.

“What's most concerning to me is this behavior and this culture existed for a number of years," Hopes said. "Just the sheer longevity of it. The mere fact it was allowed to fester as long as it did, so that you actually developed a depth of culture where it mattered more who you knew, or who your friends were, or who your associates were, in order to have an easy time at getting permits with the county, or a very difficult time. That’s not right.”

The investigation analyzed 240 Code Enforcement Department cases and 103 permits and plans and concluded that 26 Code Enforcement cases and 7 permits, involving 18 properties, were not handled appropriately. It also said that five cases and six permits studied had evidence of involvement by management, and that of those, three code enforcement cases and five permits had evidence of a personal or professional relationship having an effect on the request.

The report additionally noted in February 2021, management instructed Code Enforcement not to remove signs advertising a Parade of Homes event for the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, despite those signs violating Section 604.D of the Land Development Code, which prohibits signs within any public righs-of-way or on public lands.

While the report did state the Mallaranny LLC property was not investigated properly, it couldn't substantiate it was due to personal relationships.

Shaw said she was forced to close out the case when her supervisors found out the property contact was Kathleen Croteau, the Sarasota County Director of Development Services at the time and the mother of Jeremy Croteau, who owned the property through the company Mallaranny LLC, which he managed, and who was also the president of the Sarasota Medieval Fair that eventually was hosted on the property.

Shaw was later terminated and Hopes said she is appealing that action with the county.

The inspector general's report said the failure of code enforcement officers to perform all require documentation on their cases hindered the investigation.

Additionally, the report said some violations were not addressed due to the County’s Geographic Information System maps containing out-of-date information, incorrectly stating the property had the bona fide agricultural (Greenbelt) classification.

The report did note that some Building and Development Services Department staff had a professional relationship with Kathy Croteau, including Director John Barnott and Supervisor Tom Wooten, and it said that Chief Jeff Bowman stated he had previously worked with Croteau and knew her personally. However, the investigation was unable to determine the level of contact Bowman had with Kathy Croteau.

Hopes said the issues related to the Myakka City property are only part of the picture. “(The report) refers to a number of problems, not just Myakka,” he said. “In fact, I think I think the situation in Myakka was almost a non-event compared to some of the other findings around favoritism.”

Among the other findings were three instances of permits being issued incorrectly in connection with a former county commissioner, Priscilla Trace, with the decisions being approved by Barnott who retired in September.

In one instance, a family member of Trace was granted an agricultural permit exemption for a pole barn, despite a lack of qualification or documentation for the exemption, and without paying the $73 permit exemption fee.

In another instance, Barnott granted a permit for an accessory structure without proof of agricultural use. This occurred after the property owned contacted Commissioner Trace, with the owner later thanking Trace for helping them to obtain the permit.

In the third instance, a permit for property owned by Trace and her husband was extended multiple times, despite no application being submitted and the $10 extension fee not being paid until two months later.

Hopes said the problematic culture within the department made it difficult to carry out the investigation.

“There was interference among certain individuals in the department with the investigation,” he said. “It was necessary to basically move a number of people out of the department to allow for the interviews to take place.”

He said this was what facilitated the placement of the six individuals on paid leave. All have returned to work except for Barnott, who retired.

At the same time the Inspector General’s report was ongoing, the county also hired Brown Law & Consulting to perform an independent investigation of Building and Development Services, the results of which were released last fall. 

After Barnott retired, his position was filled by Courtney De Pol, whose experience included working for the federal government and the U.S. Navy.

Hopes said the human resources department and the Department of Development Services are reviewing the Inspector General’s report to determine whether any disciplinary action — such as rehabilitation or retraining — should be taken with the reinstated employees.

Hopes said the report's findings were “reassuring” because they validated action he took with the department to remedy a culture of favoritism.

This included assigning De Pol to the position of director; adding a new Code Enhancement group designed to improve developers, builders, and permit applicants to the Building and Development Services Department; and moving Code Enforcement to the area of Public Safety, which was deemed to have the greatest familiarity with chain-of-command operations.

“They are currently operating under a different style of management,” he said of Code Enhancement, “They have new controls in place to ensure that the policies of the Board of County Commissioners are followed, and that all applicants for permits in Manatee County are treated equally and fairly.”

Commissioner George Kruse said March 24 that commissioners must explain to the community what these findings mean.

“Part of the thing we always have to do within government is continuously express to our citizens, and to everybody, for that matter, that we are looking out for everybody equally,” Kruse said. “When reports like this come out, it could be two steps forward, but one step back. People look at a government entity as a whole being, not as individuals. And so now we, as Manatee County, have to make sure we're going back out to all the citizens and saying ‘Hey, this is a one-off situation that has been uncovered, and has been researched, and is going to be handled. It's not a reflection of your government as a whole.”

He said he's confident the board can maintain the trust of the public through its actions.

“Politicians since the dawn of time, the senators of Rome, said ‘trust me,” he said. “That doesn't get you anything. It's actions, it's cleaning up different levels of government, it's the people on this board, which is the forward-facing portion of our government, following procedures and doing things that are perceived to be aboveboard, and fair, and equitable to everybody.”

Commissioner James Satcher expressed optimism about what will take place following the report. "We're tackling it head-on and not trying to dodge it, or cover it up, or make excuses," he said. "Instead, I feel the new board majority and the new administrator are facing past issues with courage and resolve. We didn't wait months for an inspector general investigation. When we realized there was a problem, we took action, even before the report was released."

Baugh said the investigation has been a step in the right direction and she emphasized her gratitude to the clerk’s office and inspector general for the report.

“I think that we need to look at that report and see what changes we need to make to the county — staff members and commissioners and everybody — and 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 bring forward an avenue for staff members to file complaints within the system to make sure complaints are properly addressed.

“I think that's one thing that this county has missed, over the years,” she said. “We never had a good plan on how to do that.”

Hopes now awaits the report's review by the state attorney.

“When we choose to work for government at the higher levels, we also commit to operate in a transparent way in compliance with Florida Statutes for the law, and that includes the ethical conduct of the jobs that we hold,” Hopes said.

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