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Has calm come to Manatee County government with new interim administrator?

The choice of former U.S. Marine Lee Washington should provide a respite from the madness.

Lee Washington has taken the role of interim Manatee County administrator.
Lee Washington has taken the role of interim Manatee County administrator.
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  • East County
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I doubt Lee Washington is going to last long as a Manatee County administrator.

But if he runs for the Manatee County Commission, he will get my vote.

On Feb. 7, Washington was named the interim administrator when Scott Hopes tendered his resignation, obviously under pressure from commissioners who no longer needed a lion to rebuild the county's government structure.

Washington, who was serving as the county's director of Community and Veterans Services, doesn't have the kind of resume that would put him in line for the county's top government position.

But he does have the perfect qualification to run this government at this time.

"I believe in integrity," he said Feb. 13 from his new office in the county administration building.

Integrity. Wow.

Unless you have been living under a beach umbrella the last three years, you are familiar with the chaos that has been the norm in Manatee County government. No matter what your political bent, you would have to admit it has risen to reality show TV standards.

With the voters' changeover of the commission — seven rather conservative Republicans — after the November election, it figured peace would arrive on the banks of the Manatee River. But it didn't.

Even though the lion had been fed, it continued to roar.

And so Hopes was shown the door.

Washington, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1987-98, was taken aback when first asked to become the interim administrator. He is not the kind of guy to doubt his abilities, but he wasn't sure he wanted to be dropped into the water at Myakka State Park and told to swim around for a few months among the alligators.

"To be honest, I had a lot of concerns," Washington said. "And in the past, I've always been able to give thought to things."

This was different. He had to make up his mind, right now.

He thought of the reasons not to take the job. Then he thought of the best reason to take it.

"The deciding factor for me is that I was doing it for the betterment of the staff," he said. "I am someone who has walked the halls before. I am someone they can trust."

Washington, a former bodyguard, was not delivering a campaign speech. He was speaking from the heart.

"I take pride in being respected," he said. "I thought I could calm the waters for all interested parties. I want to create a level playing field, with no secrets."

Double wow.

So how well can he function in a role unfamiliar to him? Remember that upon being named interim administrator, Hopes had to deal immediately with the Piney Point disaster.

"Listening is my super power," Washington said. "I don't ever want to think I am the smartest person in the room."

Is Washington a master of spin? I would say no. This isn't some plan to set him up for greater roles. In fact, he was ready to leave county government when asked to take on this new job. Even now, he still has something completely different in mind for the near future.

"I want to finish my food truck," he said. "My passion is for cooking, and, downtown, I would like to offer lunches and dinners. There is no soul food in Manatee County."

As much as I like pork chops and corn bread, I would rather see Washington run for public office. We need him.

I listen to East County residents complain about their politicians, and yet, they don't go out and recruit their own candidates to run for office. I hear it all the time, no one tries to stop uncontrolled growth, no one really represents the residents.

"I care about what we do (in the county)," Washington said. "I truly care about the community and about seeing that we do positive things. I care about respecting those who do the work."

It is likely commissioners knew he was ready to begin his food truck business and wouldn't have interest in pushing him to apply for the administrator's role. When Hopes was hired as the interim, no job search was performed and Hopes quickly was funneled into the job. Obviously that will not happen this time. Washington can put the I into interim.

In a year, he sees himself looking out a window of his food truck.

"Order No. 7!"

"I can't see myself being the administrator," he said. "Not as of today. My vision is to give the necessary support to the team. I want to bring a calm to those who are focused on doing the job. I believe in structure, that we can't do anything without our team. We set policy, but it's the other 2,000 employees who get it done everyday."

That is called leadership. That is what we need on a ballot.

It is up to the citizens to go get him.

As an aside to Hopes' resignation comes this little tidbit that drives me bonkers. I hope you feel the same way.

It's called the separation agreement, and this was listed as item No. 3 — Mutual non-disparagement, which could be described as legal lying.

"Administrator agrees not to disparage or speak untruthfully about the county, its currently elected county commissioners, individually and collectively, its acting county commissioner, and its current employees."

"The county and each of its elected commissioners agree not to disparage or speak untruthfully about administrator."

"The parties have devised a mutually agreeable joint statement regarding administrator's voluntary resignation and separation which shall be released upon full execution of this agreement. The parties agree to respond to any verbal or written inquiries regarding the administrator's departure from the county by replying in a fashion that is wholly consistent with this joint statement."

Hopes was paid well for agreeing to these stipulations.

This kind of legal manipulation prevents local governments, and citizens, from studying their mistakes so they don't reoccur. Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear someone say, "We had a good, old boy network running our government, we hired an unsympathetic authoritarian to rip it to shreds and rebuild it, and then we figured out we couldn't live with him when he was done."

Or from someone who was forced out saying, "I did the job I was hired to do, and was rewarded by being fired."

Why aren't we entitled to the truth?



Jay Heater

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.

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