- March 23, 2021
Although Manatee County’s officials have been severely at odds, they say the government can continue to function.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said At-Large Commissioner Carol Whitmore. “You can’t do your job if you dwell on something that you’re not going to win. You’ve got to work with everybody, whether you agree with them or not.”
The divide in county government might never have been broader than May 24 when the commission met to consider an extension of County Administrator Scott Hopes’ contract, along with a raise.
On May 20, setting the stage for Hopes’ contract discussion, Manatee County Clerk of Court Angel Colonneso sent a scathing letter about Hopes to Manatee County Commission Board Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge.
Colonneso’s letter said, “Given my observations, these matters and those yet to be discovered, could create a significant cost to the taxpayers that are unquantifiable at this time.”
She listed “lack of communication, lack of transparency, and lack of fiscal responsibility” as areas of extreme concern.
Then, before the meeting, Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Officer Jan Brewer fired off a resignation letter outlining other concerns about Hopes.
“It has come to my attention that the county administrator has directed staff to withhold information from me as it relates to employees,” Brewer wrote in her resignation letter. “I now find myself in staff meetings wondering who has been told to keep information from me and if they are doing this action because of the fear of losing their job.”
Van Ostenbridge called Colonneso’s email/letter politically motivated and released his response to the public before the meeting.
“As chairman of the Manatee County Commission, I will not sit idly by while an elected official (Colonneso) abuses the status of her office to attack one of our county employees,” Van Ostenbridge wrote. “The clerk’s letter is strategic and politically motivated.”
Once the meeting began, Commissioner Misty Servia made a motion to place Hopes on paid leave so some of the claims made about him could be investigated. Whitmore and Commissioner Reggie Bellamy voted in favor, while Commissioners Vanessa Baugh, George Kruse, James Satcher and Van Ostenbridge voted against.
The focus then turned to employee turnover in the county. Servia and Whitmore emphasized an increase in staff departures (593 since Hopes was named administrator).
“I want to understand what are the reasons that we’re losing 600 employees over the last year? That is a terrible loss of brain power,” Servia said. “Here we are, struggling to hire employees at this very time, and to lose employees is a detriment to the business of the county.”
Baugh, in a letter to the East County Observer, noted that while 593 people had left their jobs in the 14 months since Hopes was hired, 426 had left in the 14 months before Hopes’ hiring. She noted that Hopes was operating at a time that included the pandemic and in which greater turnover was being experienced throughout the nation.
Hopes said he will continue to concentrate on doing the job the county needs while working with all of the county officials, regardless of whether they favor him.
“I understand politics; I understand political posturing,” Hopes said May 26. “I try not to engage in that. But obviously, as the county administrator, I am subjected to those that do engage in that behavior, especially during a competitive election cycle. And it’s important for me to isolate and shield and protect our 2,200 employees from that kind of activity and behavior.
“I’m confident of my skill, experience and ability to rise above it and protect the organization from those that may want to create chaos for political gain.”
Hopes cited his experience, including four years as an elected official on the Manatee County School Board, eight years on the State Republican Executive Committee and two years on the executive board of the Republican Party of Florida, as contributing to his ability to manage the situation and work with his detractors.
Hopes said he would continue to work to reorganize departments to improve efficiency following an inspector general’s report that supported allegations of favoritism in the former Building and Development Services Department.
While reorganization can be painful, he said claims that the effort was having a detrimental effect on the county were baseless.
“Evidence will show that,” he said.
He said the county had taken about 14 months to reorganize four of its 10 departments, which he said was “not a rapid pace.”
“It’s an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary process,” Hopes said. “It’s being done strategically, and we have been having special meetings to inform the board and require the board’s approval, in public.”
He said the clerk is aware of the scheduling of those public meetings, and the clerk also staffs those meetings. He said the clerk is an attorney and former public defender, but not an expert in organizational design or business management.
Although her letter arrived only four days prior to the commission meeting, Colonesso said at the time she began drafting the letter, she was unaware Hopes’ contact was an agenda item. She said that since she is not part of the process of creating the commission’s agendas, she does not know any details of them until they are released to the public.
When the terms of Hopes’ contract became the focus of the commission meeting, the initial proposal was to raise his salary from $206,752 to $230,000 and extend it two years. Whitmore made a motion to not give Hopes a raise, which failed. Commissioners eventually passed a raise to $215,000 with an extension through September 2023.
A survey of Florida counties by Manatee County found that the salary of other administrators included $234,374 for Sarasota County and $276,994 for Hillsborough County.
Hopes said he is satisfied with the terms of his contract. “I care about this community,” he said. “I certainly am not going to leave the community with a void of administrative leadership over $15,000.”
While no investigation was ordered at the commission meeting, Colonneso said her concerns were audit material, not investigative in nature. She said she was handing the information she had gathered to the county’s inspector general.
“The clerk of the circuit court and comptroller, as an elected person, has the highest integrity in the county,” Servia said. “When she writes a letter to the board and says, ‘I have grave concerns,’ we need to pay attention. Those are serious allegations, and I don’t know if they are true, false or otherwise. But they deserve our complete and utter respect and attention, to find the answers as to whether or not they are credible.”
After the proceedings, commissioners said they could efficiently get the work of the county done.
Whitmore said that meeting was part of the process of democracy.
“The majority of the board chose to go another route, but I made my feelings known, and I’m just going to move on from there,” she said. “This kind of stuff does happen. It’s never easy when you have to do it in front of the public.”
She said she has a personal friendship with Hopes, and also said that Hopes would have taken the same actions had he not supported an administrator during the past when he served on the Manatee County School Board.
Kruse said it’s all part of the process. He said that during Hopes’ initial confirmation as a full-time administrator in May 2021, he and Commissioner Reggie Bellamy had opposed the confirmation and favored a national search for the position, while the rest of the board voted to the contrary.
“We overcame it,” Kruse said. “Reggie and I said, ‘The majority of the board spoke; we were not on it.’ We moved forward with our lives.”
He also said that the board agreeing on a smaller raise for Hopes than originally was proposed was no big deal. He said the board disagrees on topics that amount to tens of millions of dollars.
“So disagreeing on $8,000 or $9,000 isn’t a hurdle that this board needs to overcome relative to continuing to move forward,” Kruse said.
“I do my best to stay out of office politics,” Commissioner James Satcher said. “It makes us all short-sighted and makes us make bad decisions. So, I try to leave all that aside and continue to be professional, do what I think is the best thing.
“I think we would all be better served if we didn’t level serious accusations against others without knowing all the facts and the truth beforehand.”