BY JOE HENDRICKS
MANATEE COUNTY –County Commissioner George Kruse’s call log indicates he’s had private communications with fellow-commissioners Vanessa Baugh, James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge since being elected on Nov. 3.
It is not illegal for members of the same elected body to communicate by phone, text message or email, but it is a violation of Florida Sunshine Law if they discuss anything that has, will or could foreseeably come before them as official county business.
On Tuesday, Kruse provided paralegal Michael Barfield with a call log and a copy of an recent text message exchange he had with Satcher. Kruse provided these documents in response to the public records request he received from Barfield on Friday Nov. 20.
Baugh, Satcher, Van Ostenbridge and former commissioner Steve Jonsson received similar records requests, and all were given until Friday, Dec. 4 to respond. Barfield made his records request according Florida’s Public Records Act.
According to Kruse’s call log, he had, or attempted to have, 16 telephone conversations with Baugh during the Nov. 3 to Nov. 20 timeframe specified in Barfield’s records request.
Kruse had three phone communications with Satcher and two with Van Ostenbridge during that same time. He also made one call and received one call from developer Carlos Beruff, and on Nov. 20, Kruse called Circuit Court Judge Edward Nicholas.
On Tuesday, Nov. 17 Kruse, Satcher and Van Ostenbridge were sworn in as new commissioners, joined by Baugh, who was elected to another term. Later that day, they participated in their first commission work meeting. That night, Kruse left Satcher a voice mail at 6:39 p.m. and called him again at 10:18 p.m. At 10:22 p.m., Kruse called Baugh, and he called her again at 9 a.m. the following morning.
At 6:45 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19, Kruse sent Satcher a text message that said, “Ignore our call the other night. Stick to original.”
During the Nov. 19 commission work meeting that took place later that morning, the county commission adopted by 4-3 vote a county resolution presented by Baugh with no public notice that now allows the commission to change its meeting procedures while a meeting is in progress, with no advance notice to the public.
“Any of the foregoing rules may be waived at any board meeting then in session by a majority vote of the board, unless such waiver is in conflict with state or local law,” according to Resolution 20-191.
Van Ostenbridge then initiated a discussion, with no advance public notice, that resulted in a 4-3 vote to put County Administrator Cheri Coryea on notice that her potential termination would be discussed and determined on Wednesday, Jan. 6.
Commissioners Reggie Bellamy, Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore opposed the Nov. 19 actions initiated by Baugh and Van Ostenbridge.
Bellamy said the efforts to terminate Coryea seemed “premeditated” and Whitmore said they seemed “orchestrated.”
Barfield began submitting his records requests the following day.
“It’s a bombshell,” Barfield said Wednesday afternoon when discussing these initial discoveries.
According to Barfield, the three new commissioners became subject to the Public Records Act and the Florida Sunshine Law once the election results were known on Nov. 3. As an incumbent, Baugh was already required to comply with the Public Records Act and the Sunshine Law.
“There’s 16 calls between Vanessa Baugh and George Kruse at various times,” Barfield said.
“That message about ‘ignore the other night’ is so telling, coming hours before the Nov. 19 meeting began. It seems to me this is strong evidence of coordination in advance of a meeting,” Barfield said.
Barfield said Baugh still had not provided him with an original draft copy of the resolution she presented with no public notice.
Barfield said Baugh’s official county emails indicate she had a conversation with the county attorney’s office on Nov. 18 about her requested resolution but did not provide that office with a digital copy of her document.
“To date, she has not produced that record. Vanessa did provide a photograph of the draft language of the resolution,” Barfield said.
Barfield questions whether Baugh or someone else wrote the original draft of that resolution.
Barfield also said he spoke with two people who attended the post-meeting farewell ceremony for departing commissioners Betsy Benac, Steve Jonsson and Priscilla Trace on Nov. 10.
Barfield said he was told that Baugh suggested to ceremony attendee Tara Poulton that there might be a job opening at the county soon. Poulton lives in Bradenton and serves as the Economic Development Director for DeSoto County.
“The people I talked to on the record said they heard Vanessa say there’s going to be a change in the Manatee County administration very soon,” Barfield said of the farewell ceremony that preceded the Coryea termination discussion by nine days.
When contacted Wednesday afternoon, Poulton said she attended the farewell ceremony to say goodbye to Benac and Trace.
Poulton was asked if Baugh said anything about applying for the county administrator’s position.
“It was such a casual conversation. She said something to the effect of ‘You never know, we might have a position open.’ There was no mention of any specific position opening up,” Poulton said.
When asked if she’s had any contact with Baugh since then, Poulton said, “No, none whatsoever. And I have no intention of applying for the county administrator’s position if it opens up.”
Still awaiting records
Barfield said he received some preliminary records from Van Ostenbridge Wednesday afternoon and was told he’d receive copies of his Van Ostenbridge’s text messages and phone log on Thursday.
Regarding Baugh, he said, “I received a couple emails from her official county account and a phone log from her official county phone that has virtually nothing on it. I’ve received nothing from her private email accounts or her private cell phone, including her text messages and phone log.”
Barfield said Satcher produced some records Tuesday night that he was still reviewing.
When asked where all of this might be headed, Barfield said, “I’m still collecting evidence.”