GUEST COLUMN | It's time for residents to take back Manatee County
Former county commissioner Betsy Benac writes that developer-backed commission and administrator Scott Hopes are mismanaging the county government in the wrong direction.
By Betsy Benac / Special to The Bradenton Journal
As a Manatee County resident with a long history of service to the county, including serving as assistant planning director, an appointed member of the Board of Zoning Appeals and an elected two-term at-large county commissioner, as well as serving many of the great non-profits in the county, I am extremely concerned with the future of the county.
As a certified planner for over 30 years in the county, I am intimately familiar with growth management policies and how they have been implemented. Manatee County has been very pro-growth the entire time I have worked here. I have acknowledged the importance of growth as the main economic engine of our local economy and have represented many developers presenting applications for rezoning that met the requirements of the Comprehensive Plan.
Yet this newest Board of County Commissioners has taken this relationship with developers to a new level that is not visible to county residents.
Local government elections are heavily funded by special interests, including the development community. As a commissioner who accepted funds during my campaigns, I am familiar with the goals of these developers.
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One prominent developer made clear his goal to eliminate at least half of all county government positions in order to massively downsize local government. While the downsizing of government is a respectable goal, it isn’t clear what the results of this effort in Manatee County would be, or more importantly if this goal is supported by the citizens of Manatee County.
What is clear is current Administrator Scott Hopes is carrying out this directive, with the full support of the majority of the county commission. They are perfectly happy that Administrator Hopes is not respected by staff. Almost 600 employees have left under his leadership. Virtually every department has lost valuable employees, including those in leadership positions.
The most recent exit by an employee due to Hopes’ mismanagement is former Deputy Administrator and Chief Financial Office Jan Brewer, who has been the most important person in putting together the county budget. Scott Hopes has NO experience in running an organization of the size and budget of Manatee County. When Brewer resigned due to Hopes’ mismanagement, he had her escorted from the building (how dramatic).
The reality is that the county has spent extensive funds on trying to attract talent, even offering them immediate health benefits and other expensive perks. Yet like the recent hire of an HR director, the new hire bails out and quits as soon as they realize the ineptness of the county administrator and the toxic culture he has created.
When I decided to run for the county commission, Manatee County had been cited in a poll conducted by the Knight Foundation as one of the happiest places to live. The county was an organization governed by Accountability, Civility and Ethics. Employees will confirm that this ACE philosophy has gone out the window with this administration. Instead, it is all about politics, and leadership bragging about what he has done, which is primarily spend an outrageous amount of money on closing out access to public records and remodeling the 9th floor while making it inaccessible to the public, as well as getting rid of all previous employees under the fear that they are “leaking” information.
It is a very sad and fearful place to work, and employees who can get out will, even if it means foregoing their retirement benefits.
When the county clerk and comptroller tried to point out problems with what is going on (doing her job!). The commission chairman politically attacked her rather than listen to her well founded concerns, and the BOCC ignored the public and gave him his third raise in less than two years, making him one of the highest paid administrators in the state.
This board spends money like drunken sailors, draining reserves and borrowing during the most inflationary period in modern history. That’s not to mention embarrassing county residents with their well publicized antics such as ethics violations and constant infighting.
It’s time for Manatee County citizens to take back their county from the developers and their political consultants, as well as their hand-picked administrator, who bragged about not being a county resident when he was appointed to the School Board before the developers brought him forward to mis-lead the county.
Betsy Benac was a member of the Manatee County Board of Commissioners from 2012 to 2020.