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Manatee County code enforcement corruption confirmed in IG report

Tales from the Mark Side: The Conservative Voice in Manatee County

Manatee County code enforcement corruption confirmed in IG report

By Mark Young


No, the Manatee County Inspector General’s office didn’t use the word corruption in their final report of a yearlong investigation into how code enforcement handled the new home of the Medieval Fair in Myakka City.

But I’ll use the word corruption all day long because that’s what it is. 

The final report contradicts itself in one key area. The IG cut code enforcement officials some slack even though the report indicates these same officials were involved in the fiasco by either looking the other way, lying about, or coordinated with the fair’s owners because of personal and professional ties, which involved the former Sarasota building official.

The IG claims in its report that it was clear code enforcement officers knew of Kathy Croteau’s involvement, but claims it could not find direct evidence that favors were committed.

However, the IG then acknowledges in the second allegation that, “evidence supports that certain individuals were given favorable treatment by management with code enforcement cases and the permit process.”

The findings on the second allegation, which were found to be substantiated, goes on to say, “In some instances, this appeared to be due to personal/professional relationships; however, the existence of a relationship could not always be determined.”

Well, you really can’t have it both ways, but at least the IG finally determined that our code enforcement department acted in a very shady manner when providing professional courtesies and favors to Croteau.

In all, I think the IG did a detailed, and fair investigation with some exceptions. They reviewed 240 code enforcement cases, finding that 28 cases and seven permits, “were not handled in accordance with policies, procedures, rules and/or codes,” involving 18 properties in Manatee County. That’s just within their test sampling.

Most of the mishandled cases, including the Myakka City property, were determined to be mishandled due to personal or professional relationships between code enforcement supervisors and the property owners, which were in some cases friends, Manatee County employees or family members.

I’m still not sure how those conclusions can be reached without acknowledging the rampant favoritism that has existed in our code enforcement department for years. We all knew it was true. The IG is essentially saying it’s true without saying it’s true.

Government in action.

It is, however, a glimpse into the world of Manatee County code enforcement where the truth finally comes to light. And that’s all thanks to the courageous actions taken by former code enforcement officer Tonya Shaw who came forward with the truth.

As a former Bradenton Herald employee, I was able to piece together an outrageous display of corruption within our code enforcement department thanks to Shaw. Shaw’s reward for her courage was to be the first one let go by the county as she was set up by the very supervisors, on whom she blew the whistle.

The IG report states, “The inconsistent and preferential treatment of certain cases and permits based on relationships appears to have created a culture of favoritism within the Building and Development Services department.”

So the report acknowledges the culture of favoritism, but declines to reach that conclusion in full. Hmm.

The IG notes that such conduct likely violates the county’s code of ethics, as well as Florida statutes.

In my final weeks with the Bradenton Herald, I submitted a records request for all business communications between code enforcement supervisors outlined in the allegations from both their personal and county cellphones relating to the Myakka City property.

I was told there were none.

The IG found that code enforcement supervisor Tom Wooten deleted business-related text messages from his personal phone, a violation of the Sunshine Act. Code enforcement Chief Jeff Bowman, “was unable to produce all of the call logs from his personal cell phone for the time period requested,” the report states. The IG report refers back to this several times as the reason concrete evidence of favoritism shown to Croteau could not be found.

So, essentially that means Bowman refused to provide the messages. He either deleted them or simply did not respond to a Freedom of Information Act request. Either way, it’s also contrary to what I was told in my public records request when the county gave the short answer that none were found.

While I have some trust in the IG’s report, I have a problem with several inconsistencies, particularly the claims there is no direct favoritism evidence linking our code enforcement to Kathy Croteau.

The report outlines detailed communications between Croteau and code enforcement supervisors both before and after Shaw filed her complaint and my stories on the corruption went public.

Croteau initially lied to me, claiming she had no clue what was going on out on the property and had nothing to do with the fair. She was photographed at the groundbreaking ceremony, used her work computer to file for the fair’s insurance and is listed as a fair board member. Her son, Jeremy, is the president of the fair and yet she claimed she had no connection with the fair.

Croteau was eventually allowed to resign her position as the Sarasota Building Department director following the publication of my stories regarding her lies and an internal investigation conducted in Sarasota. She resigned with no negative marks on her record.

Manatee County building director John Barnott, who oversaw the code enforcement department was also allowed to retire with full benefits in the middle of the IG investigation that was clearly going to reveal a lot more indiscretions with his authority than just the fair property.

The IG report attacks Shaw in some cases, and uses a text message between her and a state official where she expresses her frustration in a personal  way regarding the corruption in her office. Shaw should have had whistleblower protection from the moment she came forward, but was not afforded that protection.

In fact, she was forced to return to work and face the people she accused. She should have been protected from retaliation, and instead, she was indeed retaliated against, in my humble opinion.

This is a massive failure from the ground floor all the way up to the Manatee County dais. And keep in mind, this is just one case that came to light. What else lurks within the depths of Manatee County government?

This case leaves a sour taste in the mouths of Manatee County citizens. It leaves us wondering if our own local government is operating with transparency and whether it conducts business in the best interest of all its citizens, or just a few.

This should never be a doubt in the mind of residents. But now it is and the question remains: What will this county commission do about it now that the IG report went public?

What this case ultimately comes down to is a series of lies told by just about everyone involved. And yet just about everyone involved is walking away without consequence, except the very person who had the courage to bring the truth to light.

The Croteau’s lied about the property’s intent to code enforcement, saying they were only resurrecting an old nursery even though they had filed corporate papers and were advertising the “new home” of the Medieval Fair.

Code enforcement supervisors lied about not knowing the truth when the paper trail was there for everyone to see. Building officials from both counties lied to me as I investigated this situation myself. Code enforcement officials lied to a county commissioner who wanted the case resolved.

Code enforcement officials lied to one another. Code enforcement officials lied to the IG. In essence, your code enforcement officials lied to you.

Despite overwhelming evidence regarding the intent of the Croteau’s use of the property, they continued to lie about the reasons they closed 11 complaint cases against the Croteau’s, insisting they were still being told the property was being used for agricultural purposes, and had ag exemptions, which was incorrectly designated in the first place.

So what ultimately happened?

As noted, Croteau and Barnott were allowed to move on without consequences. Several code enforcement officials were provided paid vacations in the form of paid administrative leave.

The fair was allowed to take place in November under a temporary use permit, when a special use permit is required. According to my own investigation at the time, this was the goal of the Croteau’s all along because a temporary use permit can be done administratively and out of the public eye.

The fair owners will have to come back eventually to answer to the public, but in the meantime, I’ve been forwarded evidence of wedding ceremonies taking place on the property, which was a secondary goal of the owners.

To my knowledge, no such allowances have been filed for or permitted.

Other key notes of corruption include favoritism shown to former Manatee County Commissioner Priscilla Trace whose family member was required to file for a permit for a pole barn. Code enforcement, on Trace’s behalf, illegally exempted the barn from a permit requirement by improperly designating the property with ag exemptions that were not legitimate.

When a citizen complained of this fact, the IG states Trace demanded to know who was complaining.

Trace, herself, was granted improper permit extensions without having to pay reapplication fees, according to the IG report.

I think I’m beginning to understand why she didn’t run for another term as this information would eventually be released.

There are other cases the IG report outlines where code enforcement officials helped friends and colleagues bypass requirements that are certainly applied to every other citizen in Manatee County. This includes a case where a former antique mall was converted into a daycare without the proper safety inspections otherwise required under the Florida Building Code required for daycares.

Other cases outline favoritism shown to fellow county employees and the former code enforcement department head’s golfing buddy.

Though the IG concludes that there is no clear cut evidence of “favoritism,” – in part of its conclusion, the IG writes, “Instances were also identified where certain property owners were given favorable treatment due to management involvement, and at times, this appeared to be due to personal or professional relationships.”

So the IG doesn’t want to use the word favoritism in light of the evidence available with the Croteau’s, but certainly acknowledge the department’s culture of favoritism.

The sad part is that the report details the hard work of many dedicated county employees who were thwarted at the management level. This is the moment where I pause and thank those county employees who are dedicated to their professions despite the management obstacles they face. It’s simply unacceptable.

Manatee County residents, and taxpayers I might add, deserve better than this kind of childish nonsense.

I know the county commissioners were hesitant to publicly speak about these code enforcement issues as the investigation lingered. I would hope that now the investigation is over, and what the report determined, that our public officials will get very, very public in what they have to say.

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