Manatee officials rail against proposed citizens growth oversight committee

It’s no secret that development has recently been the name of the game throughout Manatee County. Now, one of the county’s newest commissioners wants to give residents more say on what’s approved and what isn’t.

Misty Servia frequently called for an oversight committee in her bid to represent District 4. The new group would discuss new development proposals and provide input to the Board of County Commissioners, she said.

“I heard a lot of people complain and have comments about growth so one of the things I talked about bringing to this board was the establishment of a Citizens Growth Oversight Committee,” Servia said at the Dec. 18 commission meeting. “I hope that the board will support that next year because I think that there are a lot of people in the community that feel they don’t have a voice in growth.”

But Servia’s fellow commissioners aren’t too fond of the idea. There are other, less bureaucratic ways to learn the desire of their constituents, they said.

“I just don’t want us to be bogged like other governments in the county have done,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore added, referring to the Manatee School Board that utilizes two citizen boards.

Commissioner Priscilla Trace bluntly called the recommendation more of a deflection of duty than anything else.

“To me, I don’t need a committee to tell me what the problem is in my district. Trust me, I know what the problems are in my district. There’s plenty of communication,” said Trace, who noted that she constantly talks with residents. “I just see this as another way of deflecting, so to speak. To me, that’s our job. That’s what we were elected to do is represent our district, and in my district, the largest thing we are dealing with is growth.”

Commissioner Betsy Benac said she understood Servia’s intent, but a better solution might be to educate the public about the little things the board does to ease those growing pains for neighboring residents.

“When we talk about things like transit, economic opportunity zones, we are talking about a big part of your district perhaps changing significantly. What does that mean to the existing residents is a good question,” said Benac. “As a planner you know that lots of times it’s all about the details — things like buffering and transitioning.”

She suggested a workshop for the community might help explain what commissioners do to mitigate issues with development, but Whitmore argued that she doesn’t believe development is the issue Manatee residents are upset about.

While Benac suggested a community workshop might help explain the lengths commissioners go to in order to mitigate issues with development, Commissioner Vanessa Baugh noted that the board has already gone that route.

“I can tell you, Misty, that I’ve seen us try to put meetings together to talk about the (Land Development Code) and the Comprehensive Plan and why some of the decisions we have to make are, and no one comes,” she said. “That was really frustrating for me because people don’t understand that we have to abide by the law whether we like it or not.”

Even still, Baugh took a more neutral approach and explained that the board should continue looking at possibilities to educate and communicate with residents. One way to do that is to make more of an effort to keep constituents informed.

Whitmore suggested that Servia may want to look into implementing a mailing list to keep her residents abreast of items that come before the Board of County Commissioners. Even if they can’t make it to speak at meetings, emails and letters are entered into the county record and are taken into consideration before voting, she said.

Servia didn’t find the support she was looking for in creating an oversight committee, but pointed out that she’s seen the demand for one on her campaign website, which includes a submission form to be considered for the group.

“I think it’s important, as Priscilla said and as well all know, to represent the people in our district and in our community. Yes, they can call you, and yes, you can talk with them, but your reach is only this far,” Servia pointed out. “To get a bigger reach, more communication is better.”

Commissioners did agree, however, that using an upcoming workshop to educate the public on how and why commissioners approve development could be useful.