As angry citizens left the Manatee County Administration building Oct. 5, they vowed to make commissioners pay for reducing wetlands protections that had been put into place and protected by previous commissions.
They promised to vote in new county commissioners as four spots are up for grabs in 2024 at the voting booth.
As Manatee County heads into the 2024 election year, however, those citizens might find that will be a tough promise to keep.
Local officials and residents talked to the East County Observer about what is needed to elect any commissioner in 2024. They cited three main factors when it comes to the election: district-only voting, a lack of competition and deep pockets.
Because of district-only voting, those living in the District 5 Lakewood Ranch-area can’t vote for another district’s commissioner. Consider, for example, Kevin Van Ostenbridge, who is the commission chair and who only needed 23,213 votes in the 2020 general election to win his seat, even though the county had 273,427 registered voters.
The same goes for any district commissioner. Consider that Amanda Ballard won her District 2 seat in 2022 with 11,781 votes. Less than 4.5% of registered voters cast votes in Ballard’s favor, yet her votes as a commissioner affects voters countywide.
That is the same for District 4 Commissioner Mike Rahn, who won his seat in 2020 by capturing the primary with 4,710 votes.
If a district commissioner or candidate can garner support in their own district, it doesn’t really matter what other voters in the county think.
Those living in Myakka or Lakewood Ranch who are hoping, for example, to elect a commissioner who would slow growth would have no say on four of the seven commissioners who decide that fate. They could only vote for their district commissioner, in the case of Lakewood Ranch, District 5, and for two at-large commissioners.
According to former Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, that means voters can never influence a majority on the board. For example, Baugh said if a car lot is proposed in one commissioner’s district, only three of the commissioners would have to worry about their constituents being angry and eventually responding with their votes. But four of the commissioners could ultimately decide the project with no repercussions.
Does someone from District 3, for example, care if an incompatible business moves into District 5?
District voting has become a focus in 2024 as growth and environmental concerns increase in the eastern part of the county. Some voters want to have a greater say on those making the decisions.
“With only one voice among seven, chances are that vote might not count very much,” Greenbrook resident Marshall Gralla said. “I think I’d rather have a say on all seven (commissioners).”
His wife, Janet Gralla, added that districtwide voting could lead to commissioners who work together more.
But plenty of voters like the current voting format, so change is not likely soon. There hasn’t been a change in the format since 1990, when the two at-large positions were added.
Longboat Key resident Bill Motyka and Lakewood Ranch resident Tom Conway say having a voice for each district is essential.
“I personally think you should vote for your own district. That’s who services you,” Motyka said. “I live on the north end of Longboat Key. I can’t speak for issues in Lakewood Ranch.”
“Every district, especially in Manatee County, is diverse. As far apart as they are — the islands, Myakka, Bradenton, Palmetto, Parrish — every part of that needs to be represented by somebody who has to live within the boundaries,” Conway said. “The person that’s going to be representing the islands should not be elected by voters in Palmetto.”
Conway admits that the current district voting system could allow for portions of the county to gang up on the others. He said he could see commissioners who represent central Bradenton and East County ignoring the needs of the island communities, for example.
“The islands would have the smallest voting base, but they bring in tourists and tax dollars,” he said.
Other residents were in favor of district-only and at-large voting as well.
“I wouldn’t want people from Parish voting on what affects me here in Lakewood Ranch,” Frank Ramos said.
At-large Commissioner George Kruse said he could argue for or against district voting, but he offered Baugh as an example why voters are in favor of it.
“People can say whatever they want about Vanessa, but she was hyper-focused,” Kruse said. “She didn’t care what was going on in the other four districts. If you were in Tara or Rosedale or Lakewood Ranch, she gave you 100% of her attention. That’s what you want. If you’re good at it as a commissioner and can advocate for your district, it’s not hard to find the fourth vote.”
At-large Commissioner Jason Bearden and Kruse have it tougher than the other commissioners as they must campaign in all five districts.
But Bearden likes the current system. He said needing a majority vote on the board forces commissioners to do what is best for the entire county and not just their district while at the same time keeping commissioners focused on their district.
“Do Lakewood Ranch people typically go on the west side of town? No,” Bearden said. “That’s why you need those district commissioners there to fight for their districts.”
No changes expected
The current district-only voting system isn’t likely to change. As noted, the last change was made in 1990. Voters in Manatee County, in a 2018 referendum, voted to go to district-only voting for the school board, which began in 2020.
Lack of competition, which has been a problem for more than a decade, will also be part of the voting picture in 2024.
Rahn, Bearden, Kruse and Baugh (who retired and has been replaced by appointed Commissioner Ray Turner) have faced little competition in past general elections in winning their seats, going either unopposed or facing just write-in candidates.
No one has filed to oppose Turner in District 5.
In District 7, two candidates — Keith Green and April Culbreath — have filed, but both are Republican which points to a primary race only.
Only one Democrat, Diane Shoemaker in District 3, has filed for any of the four open positions.
And those who do file face the unenviable task of competing against incumbents who are backed by considerable funds.
After the wetlands vote, Van Ostenbridge, in particular, was called out by voters after he compared those in favor of keeping the protections to communists.
Even after a slew of derogatory statements lodged at those constituents who disagreed with his stance on protecting property rights over wetland regulations, Van Ostenbridge already has raised more than $200,000 for his reelection bid.
His two opponents have raised less than $10,000 combined.
Kruse said the wetlands vote was less about the environment than it was proof of what’s been happening behind the scenes.
“The fact that everyone went along with it meant that one person has a more profound voice on this board than 400,000 (residents),” Kruse said. “It’ll be a test case for future elections. If Kevin and James (Satcher) win, they will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt to any current or future board member that your only path to victory in Manatee County is to do what Carlos (Beruff) and the developers say. If they can do what they’re doing and win, it’s going to prove that if you have (Anthony) Pedicini as a consultant and win Carlos over with promises of votes, you will win.”
Pedicini was the political consultant for every current member of the board, except Turner, who since has signed with him. Baugh used Pedicini, too, in the last election.
Pedicini helped Kruse win in 2020, but Kruse has declined his and any other consultant’s services for the 2024 elections.
“Political consultants have destroyed this place,” Kruse said.
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.