Commissioners reprimand administrator for radio tower fiasco. This is how they did it

Construction of 185-foot radio tower halted

Manatee County elected officials voted to stop the construction of a much needed public safety radio tower in the interest of concerned nearby residents.
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Manatee County elected officials voted to stop the construction of a much needed public safety radio tower in the interest of concerned nearby residents.

County leaders haven’t been quick to forgive a county administrator for putting them in a tougher position than they’re used to by approving a radio tower in a residential area without a public hearing.

In a Tuesday meeting packed with barbs from board members still simmering over Ed Hunzeker’s handling of the P25 public safety tower near Kinnan Park, commissioners signed an official letter reprimanding his actions that resulted in “insubordination.” The formal reprimand came two weeks after a contentious meeting that left the board wondering just how much power Hunzeker wields.

“Some people get a little confused about what their job is versus what our job is,” Commissioner Betsy Benac said.

In the administrative form of county government that Manatee County uses, the entire county staff works for Hunzeker. However, the Board of County Commissioners is not county staff and has the power to approve or deny suggestions brought by the administrator.

Commissioners contest that Hunzeker abused that power by sneaking the approval of a 185-foot tower, even after commissioners asked county staff to bring the topic to a public hearing. During the Sept. 25 commission meeting when the board voted 5-2 to build the tower, Commissioner Robin DiSabatino called for Hunzeker’s dismissal.

He won’t be fired because of the P25 tower, but commissioners warned that “further instances of this type of behavior will be grounds for a more severe disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal,” according to the official reprimand letter, which was signed by each board member, except Benac.

County attorney Mitchell Palmer, who advised Hunzeker that the tower could be approved administratively since it qualifies as a public use facility and did not require a public hearing, was not publicly reprimanded. Commission Stephen Jonsson said he would meet with Palmer to reprimand him privately.

Manatee County commissioners decided in May to halt the construction of a much needed public safety radio tower off Prospect Road north of Tallevast Road after residents complained that they were not properly notified of the project. Facing an issue of much higher cost if the project was moved elsewhere, commissioners voted to continue the project at the exisiting site. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

The board made its first attempt to formally reprimand Hunzeker at last Thursday’s land use meeting, but the letter Chairman Priscilla Trace wrote wasn’t deemed strong enough. Commissioner Vanessa Baugh took a crack at it this time around, her letter coming in nearly twice as long and directly critical of Hunzeker’s “professional judgment.”

“(Your actions) clearly demonstrated a lack of follow-thru that the County Commissioners requested from the Administration and Staff resulting in insubordination,” Baugh wrote. “This created a major lack of trust of the elected officials, administration and staff by the general public.”

Baugh spoke previously of losing trust in Hunzeker, citing county staff’s failure to follow an order from commissioners at a February 2016 workshop to bring the matter of the radio tower to a public hearing. She and DiSabatino were the only two commissioners to vote against continuing construction of the Kinnan Park tower.

Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker delivers his final budget recommendation to the Manatee County Board of Commissioners in this 2017 file photo. File photo

Commissioners said Hunzeker isn’t evaluated annually, so there’s nothing in his personnel file to cite against him. The official reprimand was a successful attempt to get their disapproval of the radio tower on the record, but the board also used the momentum to take a closer look at Hunzeker’s administrative powers.

Palmer’s office prepared tabbed notebooks detailing the administrative power that Hunzeker holds for each commissioner Tuesday. Baugh said she tried to do something similar before Hunzeker was hired more than 10 years ago, but the task proved too complex. She and other commissioners will review the administrative procedure manual in the coming days.

“Even if we didn’t make any changes, it is something that the county commissioners should be aware of and look at and understand, because you know what, it affects this county,” Baugh said, noting that Hunzeker’s approval of the radio tower was within his right. “So we should know what’s there and what’s not and what’s allowed and what’s not.”

Hunzeker supported the commissioners checking in on his procedures.

“Taking a periodic look at delegated authorities is certainly an important thing for boards to do,” he said.

Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker presented the board of county commissioners with his recommended budget Thursday during a work session, the first of several talks leading to a finalized budget in September.