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Business Observer Thursday, Sep. 9, 2021 2 weeks ago

Six employees on leave following code enforcement favoritism allegations

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The employees were placed on administrative leave Sept. 2 in connection with an ongoing investigation led by Manatee County's inspector general

Six Manatee County employees were placed on administrative leave Sept. 2 in connection with an ongoing investigation led by Manatee County Inspector General Lori Stephens.

"I placed six individuals in our Building and Development Services Department on administrative leave pending completion of an operations-related investigation conducted by the Clerk's Inspector General's office," Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes wrote Sept. 8 in response to questions from the East County Observer. "In addition to this investigation, Manatee County Government has engaged an independent law firm to conduct its investigation of potential violations of Manatee County Personnel Policies, Rules or Procedures.

"The investigations are related to allegations of favoritism shown by our Code Enforcement Division and possible construction code violations on agriculturally zoned property in Myakka City. Because there are two ongoing investigations, I will not be releasing those individual's names. My office continues to work with the Inspector General to ensure a proper and thorough investigation is completed. Once the investigations are complete, we will have more details for our Board of County Commissioners and the public."

Stephens told the East County Observer in May that she is investigating whether Manatee County Code Enforcement officials ignored citizens’ complaints about construction on a 50-acre Myakka City property along State Road 70 that was being advertised as the future home of the Sarasota Medieval Fair.

A Manatee County official confirmed Code Enforcement's Chet Brown, Tom Wooten and Jeff Bowman and Manatee County Building and Services Department Director John Barnott were among the six employees placed on administrative leave.

Stephens said Sept. 7 she couldn't comment on the active investigation. She said there is no exact date for the investigation's conclusion.

"Our hope is to get it done as soon as possible for all those involved," she said.

The inspector general's investigation involves possible favoritism granted to Mallaranny LLC in improving a 50-acre, agriculturally-zoned property in Myakka City. Mallaranny LLC is managed by Jeremy Croteau, who is president of the Sarasota Medieval Fair.

Construction on the site became an issue when Myakka City resident Russell Ireland, who lives on the property directly west of the Mallaranny property, combined with Doug Grosse, whose property is directly east of Mallaranny’s land, to inform the county in November that drainage patterns on their properties had changed since construction started.

In a May 5 story in the East County Observer, Ireland said rainwater has pooled on the southeastern corner of his property, even during the dry season, in ways that have never happened before. Grosse said pipes on the eastern border of the Mallaranny property have been spewing water onto his land, creating a large pool of standing water at least ankle-deep after one day of rain. The landowners questioned whether the improvements had been approved through permitting.

Despite the complaints to the county, earthmoving construction, such as extensive use of dirt fill and bulldozing work, continued on the Mallaranny property in April. The property had been purchased in September, 2020, according to county records.

Croteau told Manatee County Code Enforcement Officer Chet Brown on March 24 that he had stopped bringing truckloads of dirt to the property, according to a report filed by Brown. Croteau did not return requests for comment in the May 6 East County Observer story.

Brown’s report said Croteau told him he planned to use the property for cattle and a nursery.

Asked about Mallaranny LLC's plans for the property, Barnott, the Manatee County Building and Services Department director, said Croteau was informed of the requirements to host the fair. Barnott said a special permit and public hearing was required if the Sarasota Medieval Fair was to be held at the property.

Code Enforcement Officer Tanya Shaw began to investigate after the original complaints by Ireland and Grosse. After visiting the property, Shaw said she received a call from Kathleen Croteau, who at the time was a Sarasota County Development Services Building Official and mother of Jeremy Croteau. Shaw said she informed Kathleen Croteau of multiple violations on the property, including an on-site RV that appeared to be occupied.

Shaw said she later checked and saw no site plan or permits filed with the county. A couple weeks later, she said she went to Ireland’s property.

“From his property, I could see tons of heavy equipment brought in, the land clearing that was going on, the fill dirt, you could tell it was very obvious that fill dirt was being brought in,” Shaw told the East County Observer.

After Shaw informed her supervisor, Wooten, who in turn informed Bowman, the Manatee County Code Enforcement chief. Shaw said she was instructed to tell the complainants there were no violations. Shaw refused and reported the matter to county officials.

After the inspector general's investigation began, Kathleen Croteau resigned from her Sarasota County post in May.

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