Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water in Manatee County ...
No, I am not talking about red tide or sharks.
I am talking about the political abyss that is our Manatee County commission.
After November's elections, it appeared this group of commissioners was going to be one, big happy family of conservative Republicans.
Normally, you would hope for a mix of political bents on such a commission so that issues that affect our future as residents will be thoroughly discussed before any action is taken.
But after more than two years of nasty verbal confrontations that ate up valuable Commission meeting time, many of us probably wanted to settle for a lot less talk and a lot more action.
It appeared that would be the case when Jason Bearden defeated Carol Whitmore, Mike Rahn drubbed Misty Servia and Amanda Ballard downed Reggie Bellamy in the 2022 election. All three newcomers seemed to align well with the remaining four Commission members, so that would end the infighting.
Or would it?
On April 18, the commissioners voted 4-3 to relieve Kevin Van Ostenbridge of his board chair duties. The motion by Bearden came out of the blue for many residents who follow local government. Obviously, it was not a shock to the commissioners, except for, perhaps, the timing of such as motion.
The sticking point in all this appears to be the way commissioners receive information from county staff members and whether some commissioners get more information sooner than others.
One of the reasons former administrator Scott Hopes was hired in May 2021 was the Commission wanted him to clean house as to get rid of a network of favoritism. He did so and then was pushed out the door.
After all this trench warfare, we might have expected a calm to settle over 1112 Manatee Ave. W.
We're not that fortunate.
Van Ostenbridge was dumped as the chair in favor of District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, the veteran of the Commission who has served as chair in both 2016 and 2021.
The political maneuvering landed Baugh in an uncomfortable spot. Van Ostenbridge obviously is not going to be very happy with Bearden. Rahn and Commissioner George Kruse took Van Ostenbridge's side. Commissioners Amanda Ballard and James Satcher lined up with Bearden.
Yikes. Baugh was left to pick sides.
So understand that being the chair is somewhat of a honor, but also not much more of a duty than a hall monitor. You tell commissioners during a meeting when they can speak, but if nobody chooses to listen, well, it can be frustrating for the chair.
But dumping a chair out of those responsibilities is more embarrassing than anything. It's not like voting against someone because they disagree for the need for a red light over a traffic circle.
This gets personal, and it very well could linger.
Baugh voted in favor of moving herself into the chair position, and removing Van Ostenbridge with a 4-3 vote. Have we seen a shift to a Baugh-Satcher-Ballard-Bearden voting block? Will we see commissioners align in the future as a result of this action?
We will see.
Two days after that move, Ballard might have been thinking about the repercussions of being on the losing side of that vote. At the land use meeting, she made a motion to appoint Van Ostenbridge as chair.
With Baugh absent and Ballard changing her vote, Van Ostenbridge landed back in the chair.
“At the last meeting, I made a vote which I have since — upon further reflection—come to believe was not in the best interest of the county,” Ballard said at the land use meeting.
Those Manatee County residents who were wishing for less unity among their commissioners just received a heaping helping of disenchantment. I guarantee you this has created a rift that will be tough to fix.
It's also makes any reasonable person wonder what went on behind the scenes — Sunshine Laws or not.
If anything, it amplifies the need for good governance over the coming months with so much at stake. First up is the search for a new administrator, a process that already has turned strange.
U.S. Marine veteran Lee Washington, who at the time was Manatee County's director of Community and Veterans Services, was hired on Feb. 7 to be the interim administrator. Also on that day, Hopes tendered his resignation.
Washington was not a threat to anyone since he is planning to retire in the near future and begin a food truck business. That seemed to be important since last time around, Hopes was hired as interim administrator when all appearances were that he already had the job lined up. The Commission dropped the search and hired him a couple months later as the full-time administrator.
That wasn't going to happen with Washington.
Except last week, the commissioners voted 6-1 to begin negotiations with Jon Mast, the CEO of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, to replace Washington, who received glowing reviews when commissioners appointed him, as interim administrator.
Once again, the residents have to be wondering if the search for a new administrator is being dumped, and the commissioners have made up their minds.
Mast, of course, has ties to the builders. There is a growing concern about out-of-control growth in Manatee County. He might very well be the best pick for the job, but a lot of questions need to be answered about whether there is a conflict of interest when it comes to health of the county.
As residents of the county, the best thing you can do is let the commissioners know you care, and that you are watching. Pull up some replays of the Commission meetings or call and have a chat with a commissioner.
If the next six months is going to be a carnival ride, you might as well buy a ticket.
Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.