- November 19, 2020
Not everyone agrees a lack of bickering would be a good thing for the Manatee County Commission.
Lakewood Ranch’s Laura Whinfield said the constant conflict that has prevailed during commission meetings the past two years was a sign that different voices were being heard, while a unified board would pose a problem for the decision-making process.
“Not having any pushback means everything will be done one way,” she said. “As Manatee County gets shoved further to the right on everything without any moderation, at least half the population gets left out.”
The new Manatee County Commission will be seated following an unexpected recess after an Oct. 20 vote by commissioners to postpone upcoming regular meetings to Nov. 29.
After the Nov. 8 election, all seven Manatee County Commissioners are Republicans. Republicans Jason Bearden and Mike Rahn, who had prevailed in primaries, both won their seats on the commission easily, beating write-in opponents with more than 90% of the vote.
Rahn defeated incumbent Misty Servia in the primaries while Bearden beat incumbent Carol Whitmore. Both Servia and Whitmore were Republicans, but they often bumped heads with the voting block of James Satcher, George Kruse, Kevin Van Ostenbridge and Vanessa Baugh.
The only Democrat on the Manatee Commission, Reggie Bellamy, lost his seat to Republican Amanda Ballard.
The Oct. 20 postponement of all but one November Manatee Commission meeting was determined following a motion by District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh.
“I’m excited about the new board,” Baugh said. “It’s always good to have fresh blood. I think the majority of commissioners agree it is a step in the right direction."
Baugh said she expects the new board to form a more cohesive unit, with “less bickering and much less showboating.”
She said political grandstanding wasted time during the meetings as did commissioners making repeated comments on the same topic during deliberation. She said the wasted time was atypical of how a county commission usually operates.
Baugh also noted that residents should not worry that the commissioners won't have plenty of disagreements and spirited debates.
“Some battles we will win, and some we won’t," she said. "We just need to compromise and move forward.”
Whitmore, whose term ends Nov. 21, said the county would have to see how the situation plays out.
“I just hope and pray that the new ones know they have just as much power as the commissioners that have been up there the longest," Whitmore said. "Everybody's equal up there. After you get sworn in, you don't owe anybody anything, except for the citizens of Manatee County.”
She said the current commissioners have agreed on the vast majority of topics with Bellamy being the only Democrat. She said politically motivated proposals and personality conflicts were the source of tensions.
One cause of tension, she said, has been the reorganization of departments by Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes. She said that reorganization has been at the root of a high level of turnover among Manatee County staff workers.
Country Club East’s Hank Progar said he expects the productivity of the commission to increase, as he said “the right people got in.”
He said all governing bodies contain conflicts, and did not expect those to vanish despite the commission’s new members apparently lining up in terms of philosophy.
Mill Creek’s Chris Brenes said he expects the block of staunch Republican voting to even expand from the level it has been at with six Republicans on the board.
East County's Travis Ference is hoping the new board members can compromise at times.
"Some people are hard to work with on the board, but I hope they will work for the betterment of the community," he said. "They need to be able to lean, instead of being so stubborn on their views."
Lakewood Ranch's Betty Jo Zeigler noted, "Just because they are conservative doesn't mean they have to agree on everything."
She said she was not optimistic the commissioners could move beyond politics and truly take the views of citizens into account.
East County's Darlene Grayson was hoping the new Manatee Commission could work together to manage growth.
"Honestly, it doesn't matter what side you're on, as long as you know what to do with the funds," she said. "At the end of the day, that's really what it comes down to, because this area is growing so much."
Carol Felts, a Myakka City activist and a Republican contender for the Whitmore’s at-large position during the 2022 primary, said the Manatee Commission needs to listen better to its constituents.
She said, apathy, complacency, and ignorance were impacting Manatee County because the residents don't feel they can make a difference.
“Apathy has been generated by frustration,” she said. “The public has engaged in the process, and every time they have achieved nothing. After awhile, you can’t get people to engage or be excited, because it is seen as frivolous.”
She said local politicians count on their constituents being too busy in their own lives to pay attention to the issues.
Development was a major concern among residents, with many expressing hope that the new commission would take a different stance when it came to determining what areas to develop.
"I don't like this constant development against what people want," Zeigler said.
Lakewood Ranch’s Brad Ayres said he believed any change to the current board was a step in the right direction and could only improve decision making when it comes to development and growth.
“The problem is, we can never get that land back,” he said. “Vacant agricultural land is natural habitat. Once it's converted into quarter acre lots of houses, it's gone forever.”
The decision to postpone most of the November meetings was contested.
The postponement was approved through a vote of 4-2, with Commissioners Whitmore and Bellamy in opposition and Commissioner Servia having exited the room after the motion was brought forward.
The decision cancelled an Oct. 25 regular meeting, a Nov. 15 regular meeting, and a Nov. 17 land use meeting.
“In all my years ever in office, since 1991, this has never happened, where our board stopped meeting, stopped working,” Whitmore said. "It's just the commissioners being hateful and trying to neutralize the commissioners that may be on their way out."
She also criticized the item’s absence from the meeting agenda.
Baugh said the move would allow new commissioners an opportunity to provide input on policy decisions whose ramifications they would have to manage.
“They deserve to make any major decisions that concern any monies spent during their term,” Baugh said.