MANATEE — Manatee County commissioners rebuked one of their own this week after Commissioner Joe McClash wrote letters on county stationary to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that delayed a Town of Longboat Key project — an area in which the commission has no jurisdiction.
And another letter penned by McClash on county stationary surfaced Wednesday, this one written to the Florida Department of Community Affairs.
In this letter, McClash stated his reservations about comprehensive plan amendments affecting the development of Lakewood Ranch.
The county commission had previously approved the request to amend the plan, 6-1. McClash was the sole dissenter.
On Tuesday, because of the Longboat Key letters, commissioners voted 5-1 to remove McClash from the West Coast Inland Navigation District and replace him with Commissioner John Chappie.
County Commissioner Carol Whitmore called it “irresponsible behavior” on McClash’s part to use county stationary and sign it “Joe McClash countywide commissioner.”
It gives the impression the letter was from the entire county commission, she said.
“He literally stopped a project from a city we have no home rule over. They have every right to be upset with us,” Whitmore said.
But McClash said he did nothing wrong and would continue to write as he sees fit.
“I have another I’m writing, too,” McClash said.
In a letter dated Oct. 1, McClash wrote to the Army Corps that he had serious reservations in using man-made Geotubes, rather than sand, to control beach erosion in Longboat Key. Further, McClash said the town may have caused the increase in beach erosion by harvesting the sand shoal west of the area. Geotubes are containers filled with sand.
On Oct. 5, McClash sent a second letter to the Corps and offered a correction. Rather than Geotubes, Longboat Key was considering using geotextile fabric and armor stone breakwater, he said, which would present a safety and navigation hazard, he wrote.
County Commissioner Larry Bustle said McClash’s letters “completely disrupted the Town of Longboat Key’s plans.”
Bustle said the board passed a resolution in the past year that requires commissioners to clearly identify themselves as individuals, rather than giving the impression of writing on behalf of the entire board.
“This is a blatant disregard of that. We ought to function in the sunshine, our votes are clear, and then we get in line and support the position taken,” Bustle said.
McClash said Wednesday that there was no community discussion about the plan to put “man-made islands of rock,” rather than natural sand, off heavily used Beercan Island. “That was, in my opinion, not responsible,” he said.
He said he wrote the letter without consulting other commissioners because the window was closing on the time for public comments to be accepted, and he learned about the proposal late.
“We have people more concerned about process than protecting Manatee County’s interest. I made it abundantly clear that the letter was from me as an individual commissioner,” McClash said.
Commissioner Donna Hayes said Longboat Key has already spent $400,000 on the project, which is now in limbo.
Hayes made the motion to replace McClash on the West Coast Inland Navigation District with Chappie.
The vote passed 5-1 with Chair Gwen Brown dissenting. Brown argued McClash only had a couple of months remaining on his term and should be allowed to finish.
Whitmore, vice chair of the county commission, said she has apologized to three Longboat Key officials who contacted her about the disruption of the beach renourishment project. She said she has also apologized to Todd Pokrywa, vice president of planning for Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, developers of Lakewood Ranch.
“That’s not the way our county commission should operate,” she said. “The issues are decided in public by a vote of the county commission.”
The county attorney is writing a policy that requires any commissioner who chooses to write individually to do it on letterhead with their name, rather than Manatee County letterhead, she said.
“I just want federal, state and local agencies to know that the letter is from him; he is not speaking on my behalf unless its consensus of the board,” Whitmore said.