County commissioner assisting families displaced by fire

BRADENTON – District 3 Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge is raising funds for 16 families recently displaced by an apartment building fire.

The fire occurred at the Aaron Lake apartment complex in west Bradenton on Saturday, Nov. 6. The 16 apartments damaged in the fire were all located in the same large, connected building. The apartment complex is located at 4325 40th Street West, near the Bowlero bowling alley on Cortez Road.

Van Ostenbridge, whose commission district includes west Bradenton, Anna Maria Island and the north end of Longboat Key, witnessed the fire first-hand. Moved by what he saw, he then started a GoFundMe online fundraiser that as of late Friday morning had raised $16,835 to assist the displaced families.

Thursday morning, Van Ostenbridge held a press conference in front of the burned out apartment building to discuss the fire and the fundraising efforts.

County commissioner assisting families displaced by fire
Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge is assisting 16 displaced families. Photo by Joe Hendricks

“I was actually on a ride-along with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and we responded to this fire, so I can attest to some of the horrible things that were experienced that night by these families, as well as the bravery we saw from a father (who rescued his children) and our first responders that night,” he said.

He noted Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue, the Bradenton Fire Department, West Manatee Fire Rescue, Southern Manatee Fire Rescue and Manatee County EMS responded to the four-alarm fire.

According to Van Ostenbridge, four injured children were airlifted from nearby G.T. Bray Park and flown to Tampa General Hospital.

“There were three helicopters at one time landing on the soccer fields there,” he said.

“Thanks to the heroics of our first responders, that father, and the grace of God, no one died. Six people were transported to trauma centers, but in the end, everyone survived,” he said.

He noted one pet was lost, but many others were saved.  

County commissioner assisting families displaced by fire
The Nov. 6 fire destroyed this apartment building in the Aaron Lake complex. Photo by Joe Hendricks

“The cause of the fire was a dryer vent. This building appears to be a total loss,” he said of the structure behind him.

Van Ostenbridge said the American Red Cross (Southwest Florida Chapter), on the night of the fire, provided each displaced family with a $900 debit card to help meet their most immediate needs.

“Which is greatly appreciated, but we all know with a family $900 doesn’t take you very far, especially when you have no place to go. So, I started this GoFundMe. We raised $12,500 so far (as of that morning) and this weekend is going to be the final push to raise money for the families. On Monday, I want to start distributing the money to the families in time for Thanksgiving. They have medical bills, they’ve been displaced from their home and virtually all of their possessions have been lost,” he said.

“I thank the community. Some people I called and asked to contribute money, but the vast majority of over 100 contributors either contributed anonymously or were names I did not recognize. We’re hoping to make one last push to help these families before the Thanksgiving holiday,” Van Ostenbridge said.

“I’m going to shut down the GoFundMe on Monday (Nov. 22) because I feel it’s important to get these folks some cash relief before the holiday. Any donations we can get over the weekend are very much appreciated. I’m hoping to hit $16,000 for 16 families and give them each a $1,000 cash infusion as they head into the holidays,” he said.

The assistance efforts extend beyond the online fundraiser.

“We have had members of the community reach out. Bayside Church, The Bridge Church and several churches have reached out to ask what they can do. I had the county assign a social worker to this case to try and help these families and coordinate the relief efforts. And we’ve had over 100 members of our community that have donated financially,” he said.

Van Ostenbridge said the Salvation Army is also providing assistance and Tidewell Hospice is providing counseling for those who need it. He advises folks to contact the Red Cross or the Bayside Church to see what else can be done to assist the displaced families. The Red Cross office in Sarasota can be reached at 941-379-9300. Bayside Church’s West Bradenton campus can be reached at 941-755-8600.

Lasting impact

“People think of west Bradenton and the Islands as these very affluent communities, but the truth is the meat and potatoes of west Bradenton are working families and blue collar families. A lot of these folks are paycheck-to-paycheck working families. The apartment complex gave them their deposit back and their last month’s rent and they sort of got patted on the behind and sent on their way. These people have to go on with their lives and they’re still very much in a bad way. We all know it’s a very difficult housing market and you can’t just walk up to an apartment complex and expect to move in in a few days. This may have to float these folks until they’re able to move into an apartment,” Van Ostenbridge said.

He said affordable housing was the topic of lengthy discussion at the previous night’s county commission meeting. He also said the large influx of people moving into Manatee County has placed additional pressure on an already tight housing market.

County commissioner assisting families displaced by fire
The fire left families displaced and belongings destroyed. Photo by Joe Hendricks

Van Ostenbridge was asked what he saw and felt the night of the fire.

“When I arrived there was about 30 feet of fire coming out of the second story of this building. Cedar Hammock fire department was just pulling up on the scene. There were people shouting there were still people and children and pets inside the burning building. Cedar Hammock fire department reacted heroically and immediately went straight into what was an inferno at the time. They immediately began evacuating people in a systematic and calm way and they went straight into the danger and literally saved lives,” he said.

“It was a chaotic scene when we arrived, however, as the first responders showed up things calmed very quickly. I was terrified that people were going perish in the fire. I then watched firemen running into the buildings and I was terrified that something would happen to them while they were in the fire. It was certainly emotional to see a fireman giving CPR to an infant. It was certainly emotional to see people screaming that children were in burning buildings,” he said.

Van Ostenbridge said he accompanied the sheriff’s deputies who helped evacuate the occupants of the neighboring buildings that were not on fire.

“That was the extent of my participation. Even those folks who did not suffer fire damage to their apartments, they spent a cold night sitting in a parking lot,” he said.

County commissioner assisting families displaced by fire
The fire swept through the entire apartment building. Photo by Joe Hendricks

“It’s important to recognize the heroics of our first responders, but this press conference is also to remind people that there is an aftermath for these families and the days and weeks that follow don’t necessarily get easier for them. They’ve been displaced from their home, they’ve lost all their possessions and to a certain extent they have to start over. We’re fortunate that every life was saved, but there is an impact to your life when your displaced from your home leading into the holidays,” Van Ostenbridge said.

Van Ostenbridge also share some video footage he shot the night of the fire.

Baugh reaches settlement with Barfield; deposition transcript released

BRADENTON – Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh has reached a settlement agreement with paralegal Michael Barfield regarding the Public Records Act lawsuit Barfield filed in December.

On June 19, Baugh signed a settlement agreement that required her to pay Barfield $4,319. When contacted on Thursday, July 1, Barfield said he received a check from Baugh the previous day and he now considers the case to be “a done deal at this point.”

Barfield’s civil lawsuit originally named County Commissioner James Satcher as the lone defendant, and Baugh and Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge were later named as co-defendants.

The Sunshine Gazette also obtained a transcript of the under oath deposition paralegal Barfield conducted of Baugh on May 14. Tallahassee based attorney George Levesque provided legal representation to Baugh during the deposition and throughout this legal process.

Baugh Barfield Settlement
Paralegal Michael Barfield has received a $4,319 settlement payment from Vanessa Baugh. Photo: Joe Hendricks

On page 31 of the deposition transcript, Barfield begins questioning Baugh about a county resolution Baugh presented to the newly reconfigured county commission on Nov. 19. The resolution was presented with no advance notice to the public or the commission as a whole. The resolution pertained to meeting protocols and what commission actions could be taken at a particular type of county meeting. The resolution was adopted that day by 4-3 vote, but was later rescinded by a unanimous commission vote.

During her deposition, Baugh admitted under oath that she did not author the resolution. She also admitted that she previously claimed she did write the resolution. When Barfield asked Baugh who wrote the resolution, Baugh declined to answer that question based on the advice her attorney.

In late April, Satcher and Van Ostenbridge agreed to collectively pay Barfield $6,000 to settle their roles in the case from which they were then dismissed.

In May, the Manatee County Commission voted 7-0 in favor of county taxpayers reimbursing Satcher and Van Ostenbridge approximately $56,000 to cover the legal fees and settlement costs they incurred as defendants in the case.

When the county commission reconvenes later this month after its annual summer break, Baugh will have the opportunity, if she so chooses, to seek county reimbursement for the legal fees and settlement costs she incurred in this matter.

Barfield deposed Van Ostenbridge under oath in March, but The Sunshine Gazette has not obtained the transcript of that deposition.

(Vanessa Baugh’s deposition transcript and her settlement agreement can be obtained by clicking on the color-highlighted words contained in the story)

FDLE releases investigative report regarding Manatee County commissioners

MANATEE COUNTY – On Thursday, April 1, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) provided a copy of the 25-page investigative report that details the recent investigation that found no evidence of criminal conduct regarding four Manatee County Commissioners.

You can read the entire FDLE report here.

On March 19, FDLE spokesperson Jeremy Burns provided a case summary regarding the investigation initiated in response to a criminal complaint filed by paralegal Michael Barfield. You can read Barfield’s complaint here:

“In December, the state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit requested FDLE’s assistance with reviewing a citizen complaint concerning allegations of Sunshine Law violations and possibly other law violations by several Manatee County commissioners. FDLE Agents met with the complainant who alleged that Manatee County Commissioners James Satcher, George Kruse, Vanessa Baugh and Kevin Van Ostenbridge conspired to reverse a controversial land purchase and to fire the Manatee County administrator,” the case summary stated.

“FDLE initiated a preliminary inquiry to determine if any criminal violations occurred. After the review of records provided by the complainant and conducting several interviews, there was no information obtained to substantiate that a criminal violation occurred,” the FDLE case summary stated in conclusion.

When contacted regarding the previously issued case summary, Burns said FDLE considered the investigation concluded and closed.

Barfield responds to Van Ostenbridge’s request for protective order

BRADENTON – On Thursday paralegal Michael Barfield filed a response to the motion attorney Morgan Bentley filed on Monday seeking a protective order for County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge.

In his response summary, Barfield states, “Van Ostenbridge claims he has produced all records responsive to the records request but wants to avoid questions about his production by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights due to a pending criminal investigation. As set forth below, there is a factual dispute about whether Van Ostenbridge has produced all records. Moreover, a blanket assertion of Fifth Amendment rights is not permitted under Florida law.”

Barfield’s response also states: “The contention that Van Ostenbridge produced all records responsive to the records request prior to the amended complaint is disputed by the parties. As one example, Van Ostenbridge’s response to the amended order to show cause, filed on Dec. 23, claimed ‘all items’ sought in the records request had been produced. However, as recently as Jan. 26, Van Ostenbridge produced records responsive to the request that had not previously been produced.”

“Two days later, Van Ostenbridge produced another version of the same record but with a different filename. An evidentiary hearing is required to resolve the dispute about whether all records have been produced. It is inconsistent for Van Ostenbridge to claim he has produced everything while seeking shelter under the Fifth Amendment to prevent any adversarial inquiry to test his claim of full compliance,.” according to Barfield’s response.

Barfield responds to Van Ostenbridge’s request for a protective order
County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge seeks to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights if deposed under oath. Photo: Joe Hendricks

In his response, Barfield also states, “Van Ostenbridge makes an unsupported claim that it appears that the deposition is intended to elicit questioning related to Ch. 286, Sunshine Act issues. The scheduled deposition is for the purpose of testing the assertion that all records responsive to the request have been produced.”

“As relevant here, Van Ostenbridge became the actual and exclusive custodian of public records by using private electronic devices to communicate about public business. Barfield is certainly entitled to ask questions about the creation, existence and retention of records responsive to the request,” the response states.

Existing case law

Citing previous case law, Barfield’s response also addresses Fifth Amendment privilege: “It is not disputed that ‘witness may assert the privilege against self-incrimination during discovery in a civil case when he has reasonable grounds to believe that his answers would provide a link in the chain of evidence necessary for a criminal conviction.’ However, Van Ostenbridge has prematurely asserted his Fifth Amendment rights. As Belniak v. McWilliams and other cases make clear, a witness cannot make a blanket assertion of the Fifth Amendment to avoid questions.”

Citing a Third District Court of Appeal ruling, Barfield’s response states, “A blanket assertion of Fifth Amendment privilege not available in civil proceedings.”

The response then notes, “To properly invoke the privilege, a party must respond to each specific question by asserting the privilege. Once properly invoked in response to specific questions, the court then determines whether the responses to the questions posed will potentially implicate the party asserting the privilege. When a trial court is presented with such a contention, it must exercise its discretion and also determine whether it is reasonably possible that the answers could evoke a response ‘forming a link in the chain of evidence which might lead to criminal prosecution.’”

Citing a Third District Court of Appeal ruling, Barfield’s response states: “Deponent must assert his Fifth Amendment right to each particular question, which must then be certified to the court for resolution at a hearing.”

Citing existing case law, Barfield’s response states: “Party is required to make a specific objection to a particular question and, at that time, assert his Fifth Amendment privilege.”

Citing case law again, Barfield’s response states: “As explained by the Fifth District: ‘Not every question asked in a deposition or interrogatory will implicate the Fifth Amendment privilege. However, if Respondent believes a question may lead to incriminating evidence, she (or he) can make a specific objection to the question, assert her (or his) Fifth Amendment privilege and, at that time, the trial court, if requested, can exercise its discretion in determining whether it is reasonably possible that the answer could evoke an incriminating response.’”

In closing, Barfield’s response states, “It is not the witness who determines whether the answers fall within the privilege. Rather, only after Van Ostenbridge asserts his Fifth Amendment privilege to specific questions posed during a deposition does a court address the issue and conduct the test outlined in Belniak. For the above reasons, the motion for protective order should be denied as premature.”

Van Ostenbridge seeks protective order in public records case

BRADENTON – Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights if he’s deposed under oath by paralegal Michael Barfield.

On Monday, attorney Morgan Bentley filed a motion seeking a protective order from Judge Charles Sniffen. Bentley’s motion references the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides that “No person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

In response to Bentley’s motion, a Zoom hearing has been scheduled before Judge Charles Sniffen on Friday, March 5, at 1:30 p.m. The hearing seeks Sniffen’s ruling on the protective order sought by Bentley and Van Ostenbridge.

Bentley’s motion pertains to the public records requests Barfield began making of Van Ostenbridge and fellow commissioners Vanessa Baugh, George Kruse and James Satcher on Nov. 20.

Barfield began submitting his records requests one day after Van Ostenbridge made a motion, with no advance public notice or previous commission discussion, to put County Administrator Cheri Coryea on notice that her proposed termination would be decided in early December. Van Ostenbridge made that motion two days after he, Kruse and Satcher took office.

On Dec. 7, Barfield filed a civil lawsuit against Satcher as part of his ongoing efforts to obtain all  of the records he requested, many of which since been provided. Filed with the Circuit Court of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit in Manatee County, Barfield’s lawsuit names Van Ostenbridge and Baugh as co-defendants. Barfield’s lawsuit is a civil case. It is not a criminal case, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is independently conducting a related criminal investigation.

Deposition opposed

When being deposed, the subject of the deposition is questioned under oath – usually in a non-courtroom setting – with a court reporter present. The court reporter then produces a verbatim transcript of the deposition that serves as sworn preliminary testimony to be provided to the judge and others before a case goes to trial.

“Defendant Kevin Van Ostenbridge, by and through his undersigned attorneys, hereby files his Motion for Protective Order related to the deposition noticed for March 12. Wherefore, defendant Kevin Van Ostenbridge, respectfully requests that this court enter a protective order prohibiting the taking of his deposition, or in the alternative, requiring that the deposition be taken after the conclusion of the FDLE investigation with limiting instructions as to the scope of questioning to be allowed,” Bentley stated in his March 1 motion.  

Van Ostenbridge seeks protective order in public records case
Attorney Morgan Bentley is representing Kevin Van Ostenbridge.
Photo: Bentley Law Firm

“Van Ostenbridge has produced all items requested by plaintiff. Nonetheless, on February 19, plaintiff filed his notice of taking deposition, scheduling the deposition of Van Ostenbridge for March 12, at 10 a.m. Such deposition is improper in the context of the current litigation, the purpose of which was to obtain documents. As such documents have been produced, there is no ongoing purpose and no need to take the deposition of Van Ostenbridge other than to annoy and harass,” Bentley’s motion states.

“Moreover, there exists a pending Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation. The FDLE investigation centers on the same issues as those involved in this case. As such, during the pendency of that investigation, Van Ostenbridge will necessarily invoke his Fifth Amendment rights in response to questions related to any matters subject to the investigation,” Bentley stated in his motion.

In his motion, Bentley also stated, “Further, the instant case is solely in regard to Ch. 119 Public Records issues. It appears that the deposition is intended to elicit questioning related to Ch. 286, Sunshine Act issues. This line of questioning would obviously be irrelevant to any Public Records issues and not designed to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.

“Given these issues, it follows that any deposition of Van Ostenbridge on these issues will be fruitless. Plaintiff’s insistence at proceeding with the deposition, over counsel’s objection, is merely further indicative of his intention to annoy and harass Van Ostenbridge,” Bentley stated in his motion.

Barfield records request

When contacted Tuesday, Barfield said, “The litigation is related to the commissioners’ compliance with Florida’s open-government laws, which includes the Public Records Act and the Government in the Sunshine law. The purpose of the pending litigation is to ensure that all records responsive to the initial request have been produced. I have many questions about the production of records and whether it was a full and complete production. That is why I scheduled Kevin Van Ostenbridge’s deposition.”

Van Ostenbridge seeks protective order in public records case
Paralegal Michael Barfield wants to depose Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge under oath. Photo: Joe Hendricks

When making his initial records requests, Barfield sought from Baugh, Kruse, Satcher and Van Ostenbridge all emails, text messages and other electronic forms of communication between Nov. 3 and Nov. 20. He also sought a detailed phone log of all calls made or received for that same period.

Kruse, Satcher and Van Ostenbridge were elected on Nov. 3. According to Barfield, they then became subject to the Public Records Act and the Sunshine Law that night, even though they were not sworn into office until Nov. 17. Baugh was reelected on Nov. 3 and as an incumbent commissioner she was already subject to the Public Records Act and Sunshine Law at that time. 

The special county commission meeting on Nov. 19 was scheduled at Van Ostenbridge’s request, and in response to his desire to discuss the county’s legal rights in the event of a COVID-19-related federal shutdown. During that meeting, Van Ostenbridge then proposed terminating Coryea and he made a motion to put Coryea on notice her termination would be addressed at another meeting in early December. Kruse, Satcher and Baugh supported Van Ostenbridge’s motion. Commissioners Reggie Bellamy, Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore opposed it and the motion passed by a 4-3 vote.

During that Nov. 19 meeting, Bellamy said the previously unannounced efforts to oust Coryea appeared to be “premeditated.” Whitmore described the termination efforts as “orchestrated.” Servia described them as “reckless” and “dangerous.”

Those initial terminations efforts were later abandoned, then reinitiated for a second time by Kruse in late January and finally settled with a $204,000 separation agreement Coryea and the commission mutually agreed to on Feb. 23. 

On Thursday morning, Barfield filed his response to Bentley’s March 1 motion.

$204,000 Coryea separation agreement finalized

Coryea separation agreement finalized
Cheri Coryea’s tenure as as county administrator came to an end on Tuesday.
Photo: Joe Hendricks

BRADENTON – The Manatee County Commission, on Tuesday, voted 6-1 to accept a separation agreement that at the end of the day ended Cheri Coryea’s two-year tenure as the county administrator, and her 30-year tenure as a county employee.

Commissioner Reggie Bellamy cast the lone opposition vote to the separation agreement. He said he could not support an agreement that resulted in Coryea vacating her administrator’s role.

The separation agreement calls for the county to pay Coryea a lump sum payment of approximately $204,000, minus any taxes to be deducted. The separation agreement is not a termination and it is not a resignation.

The commission-approved separation agreement includes 20 weeks of regular pay per Coryea’s $192,000 annual salary. The separation agreement also includes 400 hours of paid leave, 500 hours of sick leave pay and 197 hours of compensatory time pay.

Before the separation agreement vote took place, Commissioner Carol Whitmore unsuccessfully sought to have Coryea’s vacation pay increased to 1,000 hours.

Before that 6-1 vote occurred, the commission rejected by 4-3 vote Commissioner Reggie Bellamy’s motion to discontinue the separation discussion and give Coryea one year to prove she can move the county forward. Commissioners Vanessa Baugh, Kevin Van Ostenbridge, George Kruse and James Satcher opposed Bellamy’s motion. Bellamy, Whitmore and Commissioner Misty Servia supported it.

The commission-approved separation agreement brings to an end two previous efforts to terminate Coryea. Those efforts were first initiated by Van Ostenbridge in November, and then again by Kruse in January,

Acting county administrator

After a short break, the commission then engaged in a lengthy discussion regarding the appointment of an acting county administrator.

The commission ultimately voted 4-3 in opposition to hiring Venice-based attorney and former Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines to serve as acting county administrator while a search for a new county administrator is conducted.

Coryea separation agreement finalized
The commission majority opposed Charles Hines serving as acting county administrator. Photo: Joe Hendricks

Commissioners Baugh, Kruse, Satcher and Van Ostenbridge opposed Hines’ temporary hiring, which was previously proposed by County Attorney Bill Clague. Bellamy, Servia and Whitmore supported hiring Hines.  

Before those votes were cast, school board member Dr. Scott Hopes expressed interest in the acting county administrator’s job.

Van Ostenbridge and James Satcher also touted Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance President and CEO Dom DiMaio as a potential candidate.

“Dom DiMaio’s beating down my door. I’ve talked to Dom a couple times as well,” Van Ostenbridge said. “DiMaio’s not here, but he seems pretty interested the way he blows my phone up.”

During public comment, county resident Carol Felts expressed concerns about DiMaio’s connections to developer Carlos Beruff. She also oppossed Hopes serving in that role.

Satcher mentioned Rick Mills as another potential candidate. Mills formerly served as superintendent of the School Board District of Manatee County.

After another short recess, the commission voted 6-1 in favor of appointing current Deputy County Administrator Karen Stewart to serve as the acting county administrator, but only until March 23. It was noted during the meeting that Stewart is not interested in serving in that role on an extended or permanent basis.

Coryea separation agreement finalized
Karen Stewart will serve as acting county administrator until March 23.
Photo: Joe Hendricks

As a final action, the commission voted 7-0 to direct Clague to draft a contract and accompanying resolution for the position of acting county administrator, to be presented to the commission no later than the commission’s land use meeting on March 4.

The commission will then have until March 23 to appoint someone to serve as acting county administrator while a search for a permanent county administrator is conducted. Van Ostenbridge expressed hope that the