- November 25, 2020
It the pursuit of transparency, Manatee County leaders said they will participate in more "town hall"-type meetings with neighborhoods and release agendas of public meetings sooner in order to keep residents better informed of the government's operation.
At a March 23 press conference, and in the wake of the Manatee County inspector general's report that found favoritism in the county's code enforcement processes, Administrator Scott Hopes pledged better transparency.
“I think transparency is the fundamental basis of how we should operate government,” Hopes said in a March 31 interview. “We're improving in that regard. The answer is a lot of engagement and communication. You’ve got to get out, you’ve got to engage people and get the commissioners out to engage with their constituents.”
Commissioner James Satcher attended a town hall meeting March 31 at the Rocky Bluff Library in Ellenton to talk with residents about the potential removal of the North Central Overlay that was scheduled for a commission vote April 7. The North Central Overlay has been in place to preserve the agricultural feel of north central Manatee County and to regulate development to be compatible with the rural surroundings. Another topic was the widening of Fort Hamer Road.
The meeting drew a passionate response from the community, which packed the venue.
Satcher said it was his first time holding such an event.
“I do live in the community, and I do hear from people and pay attention to their thoughts,” Satcher said. “I think the first time in this type of setting went well. Anytime change happens in a community, friction occurs, and I understand fully.”
Commissioner George Kruse said the commissioners also will have more work sessions that will allow the public to comment on things they care most about as well as planned changes.
Kruse said he already has been hosting town halls to get feedback about issues related to the Future Development Area Boundary Line.
“When I came in, I promised people — and I would argue every other commissioner at some point in time or another has promised — to provide timely information to the citizens, to give them a voice in how they expect to be governed and how Manatee County is expected to move forward. But at times it feels we don't do that.”
Carol Felts, a Myakka City activist, isn't convinced the county is providing timely access to information to its citizens.
Felts, who is running in the District 6 Commission race against incumbent Carol Whitmore and Jason Bearden, said Manatee County could improve its transparency by making it clear how citizen's input is being considered and addressed. She said town halls are not useful if the residents don't know how their concerns influence the county's direction, if at all. She said she has heard no discussions about how such input is processed. She also said no agenda was offered for the Rocky Bluff town hall meeting.
Felts said Manatee County has a poor record in terms of posting agendas for its public meetings. She said the agenda for the April 7 land use meeting came out one week before the meeting, which she said isn't enough time.
"I don't find that very transparent or accountable," she said.
Kruse agreed that before his arrival on the board just over a year ago, the agendas were often delivered to the commissioners, and the public on the Thursday or Friday before a Tuesday Commission meeting. He said it was not nearly enough time to sort through all the issues before the meeting, and it was not enough time to form a reasonable opinion.
He said early in 2021, the county began to make sure agendas went out at least 10 days in advance, but since has reverted to a shorter time frame. He noted his frustration at a March 22 Commission meeting.
“I feel the frustration of a lot of citizens who have approached me, and approached this board as a whole, saying that they feel like things are being held back too long, and it is not giving people enough opportunity to voice their opinion,” he said.
Kruse said he favors getting agendas out as soon as possible, even if they are raw drafts, indicating the issues.
“You can at least let people know, ‘Hey, a discussion about affordable housing is going to be on the agenda, a discussion about the plot of this subdivision will be on this agenda,” Kruse said. “For most people, that's sufficient for them to know whether or not they may need to pay attention.”
District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh and Kruse both said that exceptions would need to be made for certain urgent agenda items, such as an emergency incident at Piney Point.
“You can’t write a rule that says you have to have (10 days notice) no matter what, but you can do your best,” Baugh said.
Commissioners Misty Servia and Kevin van Ostenbridge expressed concerns about lengthening the amount of time when an agenda should be released to the public.
“I feel like we’re going to trade one frustration of the public for another, if we publish a draft, and then we go into briefings and six changes are made," Ostenbridge said. "If we’re a week out, I think that’s ample time.”
Felts said time isn't the only concern when it comes to agendas. She said often the items are not made "in plain English" so the general public can't understand the reference or what is about to be considered.
"'This guy wants to put 80,000 houses here.' That is very simple," Felts said.
Baugh said she will bring forward a transparency and ethics policy for the Commission to follow, but she didn't want to talk about the policy until she presents it to the commissioners later this month. She also is proposing a system of registration for any lobbyist who wishes to speak on a topic at a Commission meeting, noting that sometimes a spokesperson for a group will speak before the commission without disclosing an affiliation with the party they are promoting.
Transparency between government officials and employees, and the general public isn't the only issue. Baugh said that greater transparency is needed for county employees to report grievances. She said in the past, grievances have been addressed by department directors, and she believes an independent person or department should review these issues.
Whitmore said commissioners should be conscious of the limits of their responsibilities.
“We’re only responsible for the budget and for setting the policy,” Whitmore said. “We don’t do operations and we are not allowed to direct directors.”
She said any policy that is created requires a work session for it to be presented; it will then be reviewed by the county administrator and the county attorney.
She also pointed to the measures currently in place which allow staff members to submit complaints.
Whitmore said that amid calls for transparency, people should not develop a false picture of the government.
“Have we gone through many changes? Yes,” she said. “But to say that every department is corrupt is false.”
County leaders also said they must make sure the public can access information with relative ease to facilitate transparency.
“We do want people to have not just the truth available, but access to the truth," Satcher said.
Hopes said perhaps some education is needed about what is available on the county's website.
“Most of what goes on in Manatee County government is on that website,” he said. “My intent is for the website to be a little bit more user friendly.”
Bill Logan, the information outreach manager for the county, said the county is always looking for ways that the effectiveness of the site can be improved.
Logan highlighted two main resources — the Capital Project Dashboard, which shows progress on capital improvement projects, and the Manatee County Administration dashboard, which contains separate dashboards related to a variety of county departments. He said that these resources provide the ability for the public to understand the county’s operations through detailed breakdowns, which will reveal information such as the amount of money approved for community health and well-being.
Kruse said that the extent to which the government can make its operations public has its limits.
“I don't know what else there is," he said. "There's only so much."
Baugh said there is more work to be done.
“We’re seeing a lot of changes — good changes — that should have happened a long time ago,” she said. “Being transparent and giving the citizens the opportunity to be part of the process, that’s what it’s all about. No one can be perfect, but we can be better. The easiest way to describe our role is to make sure that we don’t get in the way, to make sure we don’t interfere in private industries, to make sure quality of life for citizens is the best it can be.”