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East County Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 1 year ago

Manatee County commissioners clash as administrator keeps job

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Vanessa Baugh says her fellow commissioners can't be afraid to do their jobs.
by: Brendan Lavell Staff Writer

Although Manatee County Commissioners have changed course and will not vote to terminate the contract of Administrator Cheri Coryea, at least one commissioner said her fellow commissioners should be open to change.

“The citizens need to understand that the staff basically runs the county,” District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said. “If you look back at last year and years before, you will see that almost every time staff brings forth an agenda item, it passes. You can always kind of get the sense of where the votes are coming from. So for me, that is something that I think we need to look at, and the county commissioners need to start doing their jobs.”

On Dec. 10, Manatee County commissioners voted unanimously to reconsider their Nov. 19 motion to give at least a 15-day notice before a vote could be taken to terminate Coryea’s contract.

That motion was raised by Commissioner George Kruse, who said he spent the three previous weeks talking with department heads, staff members and the public about Coryea.

Kruse also met with Coryea to discuss his vision for Manatee County, which he said includes lowering taxes, lessening regulations while increasing government efficiency, cleaning up government hiring practices and increasing private sector conservatism. Kruse said Coryea was completely on board to work with him on achieving that vision and that she doesn’t have an agenda.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore disagrees with Baugh’s notion that county staff runs the government.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore didn't support the motion to consider firing Coryea. She said it doesn’t make sense to focus so much energy on firing and replacing an administrator who has received consistently positive performance evaluations while the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating issues such as unemployment and hunger. She also disagrees with Baugh’s notion that county staff runs the government.

“Commissioner Baugh needs to do her homework,” Whitmore said. “Employees don't have the power. The board sets policy, i.e. the Musgrave land deal. The employees followed up. … If there's four votes, they do what we tell them. They always have. If they disagree, they'll tell us their justification. But if it's overruled, they always do what we tell them or they wouldn't be here.”

Baugh cited the county’s $32.5 million purchase for 161 acres adjacent to Lena Road Landfill, owned by Musgrave Real Estate Holdings, as an example. She said staff and commissioners agreed in 2018 to search for land to serve as the site of a new landfill when needed and that staff instead returned in 2020 and proposed to buy land for a transfer station.

“I think that the power so to speak, is in the administration, that you are witnessing almost every day with things that are happening today,” Baugh said. “They want things to continue to run the same as is. And we’ve got to take the power back and put it where it belongs, which is with the Manatee County Commission. Not staff and the administration. So they need to start following our lead and being held accountable if they don't do that.

“The people elect the county commissioners to represent them. That's our job. We are supposed to make sure that we are the ones that set up the agenda as to where the county government is going. ... And I don't think that we've done such a great job at that.”

On Dec. 10, Manatee County commissioners voted unanimously to reconsider their Nov. 19 motion to give at least a 15-day notice before a vote could be taken to terminate Administrator Cheri Coryea’s contract.

Kruse, Baugh, Kevin Van Ostenbridge and James Satcher are the four commissioners who voted to consider the status of Coryea’s contract Nov. 19. Kruse noted at the time that if he had been asked to terminate her contract that day, he would’ve voted no because of a lack of information.

“At the time I voted for it to offer dialogue and give myself proper diligence,” Kruse said.

Kruse said as long as Coryea is committed to working with himself and the Board of Commissioners to carry out their plans, it makes more sense to work with her rather than spend up to a year or even longer searching for a new administrator, hiring one and bringing them up to speed with Manatee County.

“I’ll give it a year, and I’m almost positive we’re going to be in the right direction and this is a non-issue,” Kruse said. “But a year from now, if we’re right where we are now, I’ll make that motion (to give her notice) myself and take that brunt of complaint that people have.”

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Brendan Lavell is a general assignment reporter for the Observer. He earned degrees in journalism and history at the University of Missouri. He has visited 48 of the 50 United States, has a black cat named Arya and roots for the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, 76ers and Chelsea FC.

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