- November 30, 2020
Calling for a "new direction in county government," new commissioners Kevin Van Ostenbridge, George Kruse and James Satcher, along with District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, put into motion a process that could end with the termination of Administrator Cheri Coryea.
During a heated, contentious meeting Nov. 19, a motion to give at least 15 days before a vote could be taken to terminate Coryea was passed 4-3.
Commissioners Carol Whitmore, Misty Servia and Reggie Bellamy cast the dissenting votes.
An ensuing motion to hold a special meeting Jan. 6 with the single item to discuss and vote on the termination of Coryea’s contract then passed unanimously. Commissioners agreed it was best to wait on the decision until after the holidays.
The motion was raised by Van Ostenbridge, who said he has a different vision for the county, and added he wants a culture shift to run the government more like part of the private sector, as opposed to Coryea, who he called a “public sector person.”
Van Ostenbridge said he disagreed with the direction Coryea was steering the commission, citing the $32.5 million purchase the commissioners passed 4-3 in October for 161 acres at the corner of Lena Road and State Road 64 as a specific example. Satcher and Baugh both agreed the purchase was a mistake, with Baugh calling county utilities director Mike Gore unqualified to lead the negotiations for the land.
“[The past election] was a very strong vote for conservatives by the voters of Manatee County,” Baugh said. “They’ve made it very clear how they feel, how they stand and what they want to see in their government. And I think it’s our responsibility to make sure we follow through.”
“We want to watch taxpayer money like a hawk,” Satcher added. “I think we want to be very deliberate when we spend taxpayer funds.”
Whitmore was angry with the motion and said the new commissioners had been called by a developer who didn't want Coryea as administrator. She said she also was called by the developer, who she didn't name.
“I will ask that the entire public that doesn’t support the fiasco that happened today, please come to the meeting,” Whitmore said.
Dissenting commissioners said Coryea was only doing what the previous board directed her to do. They said she therefore should not be held responsible for the previous board’s decisions.
The dissenting commissioners also felt the motion was raised too quickly into the new board’s term, saying the new commissioners didn’t give Coryea a chance to work with them and that the quickness of the move would send a message to county employees and partners working with or for Manatee County government is too volatile.
“There are employees crying right now because of what you’ve just done,” Whitmore said to Van Ostenbridge. “And maybe you don’t care, but you should. You’re a good kid. I know you are. I’m sorry, you’re a good man. I just really am upset. Because I said, ‘No, he’s a fair person. He’s from here. He’ll listen to everybody.’”
“It’s a very difficult decision,” Van Ostenbridge replied. “It can be emotional for people. But you cannot run a $1.5 billion business based on feelings and emotion. Unfortunately, it has to be run pragmatically as a business.”
Baugh declined to comment when asked after the meeting if more personnel changes could be considered.
Servia noted Van Ostenbridge had only been in office for about 50 hours. Whitmore said she knows this is a premeditated move to replace Coryea, while Bellamy wondered the same without claiming it to be certain.
“I think everybody needs to take a breath,” Baugh responded. “There’s been a lot of accusations made here today. I don’t believe it is fair to make accusations to the new commissioners who have been working for over a year to get elected. They might know a little bit more than you think.”
Baugh said she will have a conversation with Coryea and her vote is not set in stone, but she said the closing date on the Lena Road purchase was rushed and Baugh feels that falls on Coryea as the leader of the county staff.
Kruse said he doesn’t make rash decisions, adding he likely would have voted not to terminate Coryea’s contract if required to make a choice on the spot. He also urged anyone who works with Coryea to reach out to him so he can make an educated decision.
“I encourage everyone on this board, regardless of what side you’re on, to take this as one of the most serious decisions you’ll have to make,” Kruse said. “Because it does have bigger implications across the entire county and the government.”