by Joe Shea
Manatee County Times
July 26, 2011
A SHORT DAY FOR A LONG DOLLAR AT MANATEE COUNTY COMMISSION
BRADENTON, Fla., July 26, 2011 -- One hour and 45 minutes after they began work at Tuesday's meeting of the Manatee County Board of Commissioners, chairman Carol Whitmore - a registered nurse who works for her husband's plastic surgery practice when she's not busy as a commissioner - adjourned the weekly meeting of the commission.
All but one of the seven commissioners are self-described conservatives and Republicans, who outnumber Democrats in the county by 20,000 voters; the lone commission Democrat, Michael Gallen, is an attorney and the son of a longtime county judge. The commissioners have slashed budgets and jobs in the past two years while never raising taxes. Meanwhile, their own pay and benefits have gone untouched.
It was a short session that adopted dozens of items - many of them purchases of easements and rights-of-way that had occurred while they were on their paid annual, month-long summer vacation - and commissioners gave away a specially equipped Silverado to an animal rights group and declared thousands of dollars worth of other vehicles and computer technology surplus. It also included a half-hour of eight short speeches by Toastmasters Club members, recognition of the county's employee of the month, and a declaration of World Breastfeeding Week early in August.
The commission's chambers were crowded at the start, but virtually no members of the general public remained. Those that did included a group of neatly-dressed women concerned about a subdivision approved two months earlier by a 4-3 vote of the county's appointed planning commission. The chair admitted she had never heard of it, and most of the commentary indicated the commissioners didn't know where it was. The woman whose district the subdivision is in, Donna Hayes, a former chairwoman of the Manatee County Republican executive committee, was absent.
In the end, the county attorney advised against inviting the five women speak during the public comments section of the meeting, which is ordinarily open to everyone; Whitmore told them to come back for a land use meeting in August so as to not prejudice the commissioners about a "quasi-judicial" matter. The women came from a rural part of a community named Parrish almost 20 miles away; they left together, their faces set in stone. Meanwhile, the commissioners put off discussion of a 3,500-home subdivision until mid-October.
The meeting also saw brief sessions of various other commissions the seven commissioners also compose, including the Manatee County Port Authority, the Civic Center Authority and the Community Redevelopment Agency. The longest of those, lasting about two minutes, was a report by Commissioner Larry Bustle on the readiness for renewed deep-channel dredging at the county Port of Manatee, which be the closest deepwater port in the continental United States to the Panama Canal when it's completed in September.
The port had suffered a month-long interruption of the expensive dredging process while the gypsum stacks they use for a clarifying pond near the port leaked potential contaminants into Bishop Harbor. The leaks had to be fixed, the water tested, and the dredging use retested three times, but Bustle said the prognosis for completing the dredging looks good.
The part-time commissioners, two of whom enjoy the month's paid vacation after less than a year in office, are paid $74,807 a year for such exertions, according to Human Resources official Pat LaBarr, or about $204 a day every day of the year. The number of hours they spend on the job can vary greatly from person to person, and most of it is spent not at the regular Tuesday meetings - which often go to 2 p.m. or later - but at constituent affairs such as homeowner meetings, other governmental meetings and the like. Health and pension benefits and other allowances are not included in those numbers, LaBarr said.
But Tuesday, for less than two hours' work, the seven commissioners each earned a little more than $100 an hour. So far, they've earned $6,000 or so this month doing far less of the same.
With high unemployment and low salaries in one of the many depressed counties of this right-to-work state, that kind of money for that kind of work would look pretty good to their constituents - in the unlikely event they ever found out.
Joe Shea is the government reporter for the Manatee County Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.