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 The resolution was adopted that day by 4-3 vote, but was later rescinded by a unanimous commission vote.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.

Baugh-Jensen vaccine texts suggest political motivations?

The text messages exchanged between Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh and ‎Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. President and CEO Rex Jensen regarding the pop-up vaccine distribution site they helped Gov. Ron DeSantis establish at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch in mid-February suggest there may have been political motivations involved in those efforts.

One text exchange between Baugh and Jensen alludes to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ possible 2022 reelection bid and how the Lakewood Ranch vaccine clinic might benefit the governor politically. That specific exchange can be found on page 26 of the PDF document below that contains 35 pages of Baugh’s text message records, which also include exchanges with Commissioner Carol Whitmore, Public Safety Director Jake Saur, Information Outreach Manager Nick Azzara and others.

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.

Lakewood Ranch vaccinations trigger criminal investigation

MANATEE COUNTY – Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh’s role in the controversial Lakewood Ranch pop-up vaccination distribution site has prompted a sworn criminal complaint filed by Sarasota-based paralegal Michael Barfield.

Barfield filed his complaint Monday evening with State Attorney Ed Brodsky’s office and also with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). The complaint alleges Baugh’s vaccination-related efforts may have violated Florida statutes.

The sheriff’s office is now investigating Barfield’s complaint. When contacted via email on Tuesday, MCSO Public Information Officer Randy Warren said, “It’s an active investigation. Michael Barfield filed a complaint yesterday and our detectives are looking into it now.”

In contrast to the randomized, lottery-style vaccine registration and standby pool protocols previously established by the Manatee County Commission, Baugh helped organize a pop-up vaccine distribution site for 3,000 recipients of the 34202 and 34211 zip codes only. In doing so, Baugh did not consult her fellow commissioners. The vaccinations occurred the week of Feb. 16.

On Feb. 16, Manatee County issued a press release regarding the pop-up clinic. In the press release, Baugh was quoted as saying, “This unique opportunity was made possible by Governor DeSantis calling Rex Jensen wanting to do a vaccination site near Lakewood Ranch. The governor has been trying to find large areas of neighborhoods to target.” 

According to the press release, Jensen is the president of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. According to the Lakewood Ranch website, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch is the parent company of Lakewood Ranch.

In addition to restricting vaccine access to zip codes only, Baugh produced a list of five specific vaccine recipients who did not have to rely on their names being randomly pulled from the county’s standby registration pool. That list included Baugh herself, even though she decided later not to receive the vaccine.

On Monday, Feb.  15, Baugh emailed her list of specific recipients to Manatee County Public Safety Director Jake Saur. Baugh’s list included Rex Jensen, whom she listed as living in the 34212 zip code, and his father, Lawrence Jensen, whom she listed as living in the 34208 zip code. Baugh’s list also included Lakewood Ranch residents Robert and Marie Keehn, whom she listed as living in the 34202 zip code, and herself, whom she listed as living in the 34202 zip code. Baugh also owns the Vanessa Fine Jewelry store in Lakewood Ranch.  

Complaint allegations

“Based on the following information, I have a reasonable belief that violations of Florida Statutes occurred by Vanessa Baugh beginning on or about Feb. 9,” Barfield stated in his complaint.

The complaint references the following Florida statutes:

“When Baugh inserted individuals and herself on a COVID-19 vaccine distribution list, she acted contrary to the adopted Vaccine Standby Pool and used her official position to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for herself and others, which may be in violation of section 112.313(6), Florida Statutes, Misuse of Public Position.

“By including herself and individuals on a COVID-19 vaccine distribution list, Baugh acted contrary to the adopted Vaccine Standby Pool and altered or caused the alteration of an official record or official document, except as authorized by law or contract, or caused another person to perform such an act, which may be in violation of section 838.022, Florida Statutes, Official Misconduct.

“By including herself and individuals on a COVID-19 vaccine distribution list, Baugh acted contrary to the adopted Vaccine Standby Pool and used her official position to take action in reliance on information to which she had access in her official capacity and which had not been made public, to acquire a pecuniary interest or gain a benefit by such information, which may be in violation of section 839.26, Florida Statutes, Misuse of Confidential Information,” Barfield stated in his complaint.

Supporting statements

Barfield’s complaint includes several additional supporting statements.

“On Jan. 6, the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) of Manatee County held a special meeting regarding COVID-19 and vaccinations. At the conclusion of that special meeting, the Manatee BCC adopted a motion authorizing the county administrator to implement the Vaccine Standby Pool, effective Jan. 7, until further notice. The motion was adopted unanimously. As explained in the public presentation during the special meeting, the effect of the Vaccine Standby Pool was to randomize distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine through a lottery system,” the complaint states.

“On or about Feb. 8, constituents of Baugh were actively soliciting her about their eligibility and inability to get appointments for vaccine distribution in Manatee County. Sometime near Tuesday, Feb. 9, Manatee County resident Rex Jensen received a telephone call from Pat Neal. Governor Ron DeSantis was already on the line when the call was made. The reported purpose of the call was to facilitate a location for a pop-up vaccine distribution site at Premier Sports Campus for additional doses of COVID-19 vaccine,” the complaint states.

“On Feb. 9, Baugh sent an email to Jacob (Jake) Saur, Director of Public Safety of Manatee County stating, ‘Jake, the state wants Rex to keep a list. Can we do that.’ That same afternoon, Jensen sent an email to Courtney Coppola, a Florida Department of Health employee, stating Baugh helped reserve the pop-up site and outlining the tentative plan: ‘I have no infrastructure or staff to field all the calls necessary to assemble and maintain a list of candidates for the vaccine. I am copying Commissioner Baugh in the hope that she might be able to think creatively to find a solution,’” the complaint states.

“Baugh ignored the Vaccine Standby Pool process and selected two zip codes within her own district, including friends and herself, that would receive the additional doses of Covid-19 vaccine at the pop-up site. On Feb. 12, Alicia Niki Boyette, a contractor on behalf of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, sent an email to Baugh regarding the registration process for the ‘upcoming vaccination event.’ Boyette indicated that the information the department required for the event was a list with names, date of birth and phone numbers. Baur forwarded the email from Boyette to Saur, who replied that he was working on it. The next day, Baugh replied to Saur ‘Pls send to me when you have info as I am working on a list.’ On Monday, Feb. 15, Baugh sent an email to Saur with the subject matter ‘Names for list’ in which she added a number of individuals to the list of those who would receive the extra doses of vaccine at the pop-up site,” Barfield’s complaint states.

“A notice was sent out to Manatee County residents on Feb. 17 advising that the vaccinations scheduled for Bennett Park under the adopted process would be rescheduled due to inclement weather. Meanwhile, the plan to distribute the additional doses at the pop-up site went forward,” the complaint states.

Barfield comments

When contacted Tuesday evening, Barfield said, “Vaccine distribution must not be based on politics. Manatee County unanimously adopted the Vaccine Standby Pool and residents have been patiently waiting for their number to be called. It’s offensive and criminal when one commissioner diverts 3,000 vaccine doses to an affluent area and then adds names, including her own, to a VIP list.

Paralegal Michael Barfield alleges the recent vaccination selection process may have violated state law. Photo: Joe Hendricks

“Worse, the regular vaccine distribution that was planned for the same weekend was cancelled on the grounds of inclement weather. Yet the vaccine distribution at the pop-up site for the VIP list went forward without a hitch. If those optics aren’t bad enough, the VIP list and two zip codes selected by Baugh for vaccine distribution at the pop-up site happen to be the most affluent and white in Manatee County. I might add that these two zip codes have the lowest rate of COVID-19 infection within Manatee County.

This conduct is the classic example of corruption and using official power to gain a benefit for friends and the well-connected. It’s time for our system of justice to hold her accountable,” Barfield said.

Baugh named in vaccine-related ethics complaint

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh has been named in an ethics complaint.
Photo” Joe Hendricks

BRADENTON – On Tuesday, county resident Jennifer Hamey filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics regarding Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh’s recent role in organizing a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination distribution site in Lakewood Ranch.

Hamey, a local attorney, filed the ethics complaint one day after Sarasota paralegal Michael Barfield filed a sworn criminal complaint with State Attorney Ed Brodsky’s office and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office regarding Baugh’s recent vaccine-related actions.

When contacted via email Tuesday afternoon Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Randy Warren confirmed Barfield’s complaint and said, “It’s an active investigation. Michael Barfield filed a complaint yesterday and our detectives are looking into it now.”

Hamey’s ethics complaint and Barfield’s complaints are separate and independent actions that pertain to the same issues.

Ethics complaint

Taking place the week of Feb. 16 at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, vaccine eligibility for the pop-up clinic Baugh helped organize was limited to 3,000 recipients in the 34202 and 34211 zip codes only. As part of her efforts, Baugh also submitted to Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur a list containing the names of five specific individuals, including herself, to be vaccinated.

Baugh helped organize the Lakewood Ranch vaccination site in conjunction with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen.

Regarding the Lakewood Ranch vaccination site, Manatee County issued a press release on Feb. 15 in which Baugh was quoted Baugh as saying, “This unique opportunity was made possible by Governor DeSantis calling (Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. president) Rex Jensen wanting to do a vaccination site near Lakewood Ranch. The governor has been trying to find large areas of neighborhoods to target.’” 

According to Baugh’s short list, which contained each person’s zip code, address, phone number and birth date, two of the five people on that list – Rex Jensen and his father Lawrence Jensen – do not live in the 34202 or 34211 zip codes. Baugh’s short list also included Lakewood Ranch residents Robert and Marie Keehn, who like Baugh, do live in the 34202 zip code.

The Lakewood Ranch pop-up vaccine distribution site’s zip code restrictions were not in accordance with the randomized, lottery-based vaccine registration and standby pool protocols previously established by the Manatee County Commission.  

As a result of the public fallout that ensued, Baugh later apologized to some degree for her actions and she said she chose not to receive the vaccine herself.

Issues for consideration

Hamey’s ethics complaint lists two issues for consideration by the Commission on Ethics.

“Did respondent (Baugh) violate Florida Statute 112.313(6), Misuse of Public Position, by ignoring the county’s lottery system for the COVID-19 vaccine distribution and instead unilaterally picking two zip codes in her district to receive 3,000 additional vaccines issued by the state, to the detriment of all other Manatee County residents 65 and over who had signed up for the lottery system?”

“Did respondent violate Florida Statute 112.313(6), Misuse of Public Position, by putting herself and four friends onto a ‘VIP’ list provided to the county to insure she received a vaccine from the extra doses provided by the state?”

Hamey’s complaint notes that in February Baugh was approached by DeSantis with an offer to provide 3,000 additional vaccines for a pop-up vaccination site at the Premier Sports Campus.

To date, the county administered vaccinations have generally occurred at Tom Bennett Park in east Manatee County and also at the county’s public safety center.

Hamey’s complaint notes the Premier Sports Campus is owned and operated as a Manatee County park.

“Respondent (Baugh), by her own admission as stated by her at a county work session on Feb. 18, took full responsibility for choosing the two zip code locations and advised she was not directed by the governor to do so. Both of these zip codes are located in her district, are predominantly white and have an average median income of over $100,000,” the complaint states. It also notes Baugh lives in the 34202 zip code and owns a business there as well.

The ethics complaint states, “Respondent (Baugh) further admits in her responses to correspondence from an angry resident that she ‘did have a lack of judgement.’”

Hamey’s complaint cites language contained in Florida Statute 112.313(6) that states, “No public officer shall corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform his or her official duties to secure a special privilege, benefit or exemption for himself, herself or others.”

The complaint also states, “The first instance of violating 112.313(6) occurred when respondent (Baugh) took it upon herself to determine what two zip codes were worthy to receive an additional 3,000 vaccines and chose two areas that were advantageous to her personally and to the detriment of the other 150,000 persons over the age of 65 who had done as directed and entered into a lottery system.

“Respondent used her position to advise the governor of her choices. She did so with no discussion with the other six commissioners, and she did so without any consideration to the very lottery system she (and the other commissioners) put into place for the residents of Manatee County to maintain fairness in the process,” according to the complaint.

“The second instance of violating 112.313(6) occurred just days after already excluding over 140,000 residents from a chance at the 3,000 vaccines – only 7,285 of the approximately 150,000 signed up residents lived in 3402 or 34211. Respondent created a ‘VIP’ list to ensure that she and several friends and neighbors got vaccines out of those 3,000 that were provided by the state. Two of the parties that she listed on her ‘VIP’ list didn’t even live within the two zip codes that she chose as the ones to get the vaccine,” Hamey stated in her complaint.

“These actions taken by the respondent, separately and over the course of approximately a week, are a clear violation of the requirements outlined in 112.313(6),” the complaint states.

The ethics complaint is accompanied by several evidentiary exhibits, including the Monday, Feb. 15 email Baugh sent Saur that contained her list of five specified vaccine recipients.

The exhibits also include the Tuesday, Feb. 9, email Baugh sent Saur that said, “Jake, the state wants Rex to keep a list. Can we do that.”

In response, Saur wrote, “The state hasn’t mentioned anything to us on this end yet on what they require. We would be able to pull from our vaccine waiting pool for scheduling for them.”

Baugh remains commission chair

On Tuesday, the Manatee County Commission voted 4-3 in opposition to Commissioner Reggie Bellamy’s motion to remove Baugh as the commission chairperson. Bellamy’s motion did not seek to remove Baugh as county commissioner, nor does the commission have that authority.

Before making his motion, Bellamy asked Baugh if she would resign as commission chair. Baugh said she would not.

Commissioner Reggie Bellamy proposed removing Vanessa Baugh as commission chair.
Photo: Joe Hendricks

Baugh was joined by commissioners George Kruse, James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge in opposing her removal as chair. Commissioners Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore joined Bellamy in support of his failed 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

Kruse call log reveals private communications between commissioners


County Commissioner George Kruse’s private communications have raised concerns about potential Sunshine Law violations. (Photo 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.

Barfield’s reaction

“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.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh has apparently had several phone conversations with Commissioner George Kruse. (Photo by Joe Hendricks)

“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.

Wide-ranging concerns

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.”