Manatee commissioners say administration has too much influence.
At least two Manatee County commissioners are convinced a change in administration is needed to regain public trust and correct what they say are misleading practices.
District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, whose district covers the greater Lakewood Ranch area, and District 4 Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, whose territory includes communities along the west side of Lockwood Ridge Road, say Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker has too much power.
DiSabatino accused Hunzeker and senior staff members of “conspiring” to support their agendas in a secretive manner. She and Baugh also suggest fellow board members are bowing to his whim.
“This whole administration is an infection,” DiSabatino said.
Hunzeker said he and his fellow administrators are simply following guidelines set up by the commissioners themselves.
“The board writes the rule book,” he said. “We follow the rule book.”
Accusations against Hunzeker and other top officials became public Sept. 25 when commissioners were faced with a decision about the placement of a public safety radio communication tower, called P25, at Kinnan Park, despite an outcry from nearby residents.
The tower is part of a regional 800-megahertz P25 radio system. Manatee’s $25 million portion will service all of Manatee’s fire districts, emergency medical services, law enforcement, public works and the cities of Bradenton, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria. In Sarasota County, 39 agencies will use the system and the counties’ networks have been designed to work together.
The Kinnan Park P25 tower location was identified at a workshop in February 2016, at which time commissioners requested the administration to keep the public informed.
However, residents received written notification about the tower at the same time construction began. No other public meetings were held prior.
Commissioners, who started receiving complaints from the residents, said they felt they were ignored.
The board issued a stop-work order, but lifted it Sept. 25 with a 5-2 vote. DiSabatino and Baugh opposed lifting the order.
“Staff had an obligation to inform the board of what they were doing,” DiSabatino said.
DiSabatino made a motion Sept. 22 to fire Hunzeker, Manatee County Attorney Mickey Palmer and Building and Development Services Department Director John Barnott. The motion received no support and after it failed, DiSabatino suggested the staff members had a “professional obligation” to resign.
Baugh followed with a motion to reprimand Hunzeker and Palmer, which passed 4-3 with Carole Whitmore, Betsy Benac and Priscilla Whisenant Trace opposing. Whitmore said she felt the county attorney should not be included in the reprimand.
“I get the distinct impression the administration can do whatever it wants without any regard to this board,” Baugh said. “I have no faith at all left in the administration so that when I hear something, I can feel it’s truthful.”
Hunzeker declined to comment on the claims made by Baugh and DiSabatino.
Baugh told the East County Observer she feels commissioners are not being given all the facts with which to make informed decisions, and she believes she has been deceived.
Other commissioners said the situation with the P25 tower should have been handled differently, but that Hunzeker and his staff are doing a good job and are following the board’s directives.
Hunzeker did not defend himself at the meeting but told the East County Observer there was a timing issue with the tower construction and notification to neighbors, but otherwise correct procedures were followed. He said he and staff are following the board’s directives.
Benac said she feels the board was ignored in the P25 situation, but believes the staff is responsive. The board sets the policies, and in this case, she said the board’s land-use policies allowed for the tower to be approved without a public hearing.
“This was an issue because there wasn’t proper focus, how it would impact the public,” she said. “We had an opportunity for the planners who look out for the public to stop this, and they didn’t do it. We’ve got to start thinking about how it’s going to affect the neighborhood, not just help the applicant.”
Commissioner Steve Jonsson said the board and county’s comprehensive plan has been pro-growth and the staff tries to accommodate it. He believes it is important for growing business in the community. He said the administration has “no secret agenda.”
“I have not been lied to. I think it’s more philosophy, different ways of looking at the same thing,” he said. “It’s not a black and white issue.
“But I don’t think there’s a conspiracy,” he added.
Both Whisenant Trace and Whitmore said they hear residents — and other board members — call them “puppets” for the administration and developers, and they disagree. Both said they challenge Hunzeker on issues, but handle those battles behind closed doors.
“I am not unhappy with his leadership,” Whisenant Trace said of Hunzeker. “I think he’s been a strong leader for Manatee County, and I think the county has been adequately run.”
Whitmore said Hunzeker has been a strong leader, improving the county’s financial situation even while emerging from an economic recession.
“He follows the policy of the board. He’s doing his job,” she said.
Whitmore said it’s the role of staff supervisors to follow up on items of concern and influence change.
“He never tells me what to do,” she said of Hunzeker. “I’m responsible for my own vote.”
Benac agreed. She said whether an issue of budget funding or other policies, it’s the board’s job to lead through its actions and directives. If board members aren’t getting what they want, then perhaps they are not being effective as leaders, Benac said.
“You are not hindered from bringing forward policy ideas. You shouldn’t be pointing fingers (at other commissioners),” she said. “You’ve got to be able to sell three of your peers that this is a policy directive.”
Commissioner Charles Smith said the board should create more policies to have the checks-and-balances needed to prevent another situation like that with the P25 tower at Kinnan Park.
Baugh suggested adding an annual evaluation to the administrator’s contract, but there were no formal motions about it.
Jonsson said he would be happy to consider any ideas other board members suggest.
“I’m open minded,” he said. “Let’s get it out there and discuss what it is. Our job as a commission is to set the policies and make sure they’re adhered to. We have to work on working together as a way to move the county ahead.”
As a result of the Kinnan tower situation, the board unanimously decided not to allow any type of tower within a “certain” distance of a school. The specifics will come back to the commission for consideration.