Commissioners Carol Whitmore, Misty Servia and George Kruse called into question whether the county’s commitment to greater transparency was active during a May 10 meeting of the Manatee County Commission.
The controversy arose over a motion by Commissioner James Satcher to “direct the county administrator (Scott Hopes) and county attorney (William Clague) to bring back a policy that respects and codifies Manatee County employees’ second amendment right to carry while at work.”
Eventually, the commissioners postponed further discussion about the issue to the next regular commission meeting July 26.
However, Whitmore, Servia and Kruse objected to Satcher adding an agenda item on May 6 for a May 10 meeting after commissioners had just stated they would be more transparent by giving the public plenty of time to research and offer input on items brought before the commission.
Pushback on the issue was more focused on Satcher's timing than on the issue itself.
Servia said she did not understand the timing of the item’s addition and said more information needed to be gathered by the county attorney and county administrator.
“I did think we all agreed we were going to give ample notice to the public when we were going to do things, unless it was something that was urgent and a matter of emergency,” she said.
Whitmore said Satcher did not offer enough advance notice, and she said that the issue had never been raised by other commissioners throughout her time on the board.
District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said the Friday notice was “ample” time.
“I think we make a mountain out of a molehill sometimes,” she said.
Baugh said the motion was only directing the county attorney and county administrator to examine the topic, and that it would still have to come back to the board for a vote.
Satcher said the agenda item’s late addition by claiming the existence of a serious threat is present to employees’ safety.
"At this point, I see that this is something that affects 2,000 of our Manatee County citizens, and so we're responsible for it," Satcher said. "The worst-case scenario is we get busy, we get onto something else, and we don't have a meeting for a month coming up. If something were to happen to an employee then, I'd have trouble sleeping afterwards.”
Other commissioners said, based on past experience, there is no evidence suggesting an impending threat.
“I understand what Commissioner Satcher is saying, that someone could get shot tomorrow,"Kruse said. "But that’s kind of a pretty wild hypothetical to justify a sense of urgency."
Kruse did say the motion only was directing the county attorney's office to look into the issue so the commissioners were not going to vote on it at the May 10 meeting.
"We're looking at what other counties do right now?" he said. "What do the states do?”
The idea of allowing county employees to "carry" in a no-weapon zone did prompt discussion. Commissioner Reggie Bellamy took a skeptical stance toward allowing county employees to carry firearms at work and offered a list of his own proposed scenarios.
“One of the scenarios is county employee shoots citizens," he said. "The other scenario is county employee shoots coworker. The other scenario is county employees have shoot-out.”
Bellamy said the issue should be left up to security protocols.
He cited a recent incident in which a proposed security threat to the building took place and said, “Our security protocols were immediately challenged, and I think we learned a lot that we can do with our security protocols to make sure that the facility is secure. I would rely on those protocols, first, before we start putting weapons or putting guns in individual’s hands.”
Clague said liability was an issue for allowing county employees to carry guns at work and should such a policy become introduced.
“It's a double-edged sword," Clague said. "On the one hand, you have the risk associated with people not being able to choose to be equipped to defend themselves, because our rules say that, but then on the other hand, there is liability associated with having firearms in the workplace."
He said his office would need to speak with its insurance consultant about potential insurance costs.
Hopes said as chairman of the Manatee County School Board during the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, “That (issue) weighed pretty heavy on me as a chairman and as a board member.”
He said following the event, he helped establish a program for school guardians and pushed for teachers to be armed, but he did note there were many questions to ask on the issue and noted that some teachers had threatened to quit their jobs if their colleagues were armed.
Satcher called it “short-sighted” to hold off on the ordinance because of new security protocols. He said the protocols took “decades” to implement and should not be considered a solution.
The topic was met with multiple comments from the public including favorable remarks by Jason Bearden, a Republican candidate for county commissioner.
“Who is somebody, to tell me if I can or cannot protect myself?” Bearden said, citing constitutional rights.
Even though she described herself as a "gun advocate," county resident Belinda Ritchie called the issue political.
“It might behoove you until July just to make one entrance to the building if you are scared of the boogeyman,” she said.
A call-in public comment was made by a woman who identified her as “Kate from Women's Voices of SW Florida, District 2."
She said, "I just want to let you know that we're watching you, Mr. Satcher, and your last-minute sneaky agenda items. We're not going to fall for that.”
Satcher denied the motion was in any way politically motivated.
Another caller, who identified herself as Jessica Pineda of District 3, said the move to arm county employees at work seemed farfetched.
“Your concern for your employees is based on a hypothetical scenario that has not happened in your tenure or in my living memory, and I've lived in this county for 34 years,” she said.