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News Section: Local Government



VIDEO: Gwen Brown Met with Applicants Before Changing Vote on Robinson Farms

Published Thursday, October 28, 2010 2:16 am
BRADENTON – The Robinson Farms Comp Plan Amendment story just keeps getting better. Everyone expected that a "back room" meeting led to Commissioner Gwen Brown's sudden and impactful change of heart, but everyone had a different story as to what actually happened. When in doubt – go to the tape.
This is the Manatee County Administrative Building's security tape from the October 12 BCC meeting, where the controversial Robinson Farms Comp Plan change was passed, allowing for a tripling of the density for an upcoming development, despite widespread opposition in the community. Commissioner Brown originally voted against the change, but later motioned for a re-vote, where she changed her position, swinging the vote to 4-3 in favor of the applicant. In the video, she appears to be talking privately with the applicants shortly before she would call for the re-vote.  

Initially, there was wide-spread speculation that it was some sort of "back-room deal" that led to Brown's about face. However, Pat Neal of Neal Communities was so offended that he responded to a letter by Judy Cantwell to the Bradenton Herald and assured readers that "there are no back-room deals in Manatee County" and that "comprehensive planning and zoning is done in the sunshine as required by law, and communication is in the sunshine, too."

Neal went on to assure Cantwell and other readers that the "private conversation with the lobbysist was with Betsy Benac" and that "it was not a private conversation at all as it occurred in the presence of both the county attorney and the planning director." The video appears to show Ms. Benac, John Neal (Pat's son and the developer for the project) and his attorney Ed Vogler. Manatee County Attorney Sarah Shenk, nor Planning Director John Osborne are not anywhere to be seen.

Of course, because these are security tapes and no audio is available, there is no way of knowing what the group was discussing. They may well have been having a pleasant conversation about whether Council's or Shake Pit has the better burger, or how each felt the recent sequel to Wall Street stacked up to the original. What we do know is that all commissioners were instructed by the county attorney not to have conversations with the applicant, who they are involved in a federal lawsuit with over the very matter in question.   

Yet here is Commissioner Brown, engaged in a pow-wow with the applicants just before re-entering the commission chambers where she would motion to revisit the application and change her vote, tipping the balance to 4-3 in favor of the density change. Neal claims that Brown simply misunderstood the legal nuances of the application and once sorted out, voted where her heart had always been. In Neal's defense, Brown's voting record on comp plan changes and her propensity for appearing not to understand issues that the board addresses both lend credibility to such an argument. To that end, I believe Neal.

However, no matter the circumstances, this is not the intent of "government in the sunshine." It is bad enough that the large gathering of citizens who'd taken time from their workdays to attend that meeting and left feeling like they'd earned a hard-fought victory to preserve the character of their community had to learn that the issue was "re-addressed" once the cameras were off and the crowds had gone home. Now to learn that merely sacrificing their time to be in the chambers that day did not afford them the opportunity to hear and respond to all conversation that led to the decision, because some of it took place in a different venue... well what's that saying about salt in a wound?

Pat Neal ended his letter to the Herald by warning of the dire financial burden that Amendment 4 would cost the state of Florida. I wonder what he would assess as the value of the lost faith in the democratic process that videos such as this one inspire. I've said it before and I'll say it again – if Amendment 4 does pass, for better or worse, there will be a lot of opponents who will have to look no further than their own mirror when seeking someone to blame as to why the taxpayers felt that such a drastic reform was necessary.  

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I understand how this could lend credence to having Amendment Four passed. On face, this hallway meeting certainly looks cryptic, ominous. Unfortunately (and factually), "development" votes get reversed all the time, sometimes they are approved, sometimes not. Without having audio, I would say it's much to do about nothing. Either way, Amendment Four needs to pass on something more than just silent video.
Posted by John Krotec on October 30, 2010
 

I do not get your point Mr. Wright. Sounds as if Joe McClash was speaking to the applicant after the vote "was over" in everyone's understanding (except for the applicants and Brown it seems). There is no parallel to me since the record shows that Mr. McClash did not reverse his vote. Brown was speaking to the applicant before she reopened the public hearing just to reverse her vote to favor the applicant. That's the rub. Wonder whether her reversal could be invalidated because of that breech? Amendment 4 would allow an override of the reversal... a classic example of the very reason to vote for it!
Posted by Charles Ivarch on October 28, 2010
 

From my own experience I know that these plan amendments are legislative in nature and not like the normal county public hearing which operate under judicial rules. I am certain, Charlie, that under this circumstance both McClash and Brown and Neal were well within their rights to speak freely on this matter. Eitherway, trying to guess the subject matter of either the discussion with McClash or Brown is just speculation. Despite the mistrust and suspicion of this whole matter I am confident that both McClash and Brown, who have both been on the commission for as long as I can remember, wouldn't have violated any rules or the public trust. It's just fodder to encite people to vote for Amendment 4 which is the endorsement of this website.
Posted by Erick Taylor on October 28, 2010
 

I don't recall that Joe McClash changed his vote either, if indeed he did speak to the applicant, Neal. Whether the re-vote was legal or illegal, to send the opposition home is at the very least, a suspicious and underhanded way to operate a government and another good reason to throw "the bums out".
Posted by charlie deal on October 28, 2010
 

Pat Neal is correct in stating, "there are no backroom deals in Manatee County"....of course not, there don't have to be....here in Manatee County, the applicants pursue the county commissioners in the lobby of the Manatee Co. Adm. Bldg... a perfect example of why Yes to Amendment 4 is our only choice... likely, it is a little too late...already 90,000 more approved units for building on the books for Manatee Co......this also points out very clearly why voting out public servants who ignore the will of their constituents is NOT ENOUGH....these county commissioners (save for the good one, Joe McClash) on one day voted for three comp plan changes (Tallevast 24,000 sq. ft. commercial bldg. on agricultural land; McClure Farm pastureland to residential bldg.; Robinson Farm higher density in Coastal High Hazard Zone)all after hearing the voices of the community pleading "NO...Please don't make these changes to the comp plan!" By the time we have them voted out, their damage to our county and way of life will be irrevocable....Yes to Amendment 4
Posted by Terrie Hodges on October 28, 2010
 

Has anyone noticed that the county attorney passed by this group towards the end of the tape?
Posted by George Georgas on October 28, 2010
 

While I understand your trying to make hay, the truth is that I saw Joe McClash speaking with the applicant after the vote too. Where is that tape?
Posted by Jeff Wright on October 28, 2010
 

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