Tag Archives: 11-27-2013

AM mayor halts park work, benefactors miffed

Creating a park in Anna Maria is no cakewalk. Just ask Gene Aubry, Rex Hagen or Mike Coleman.

Holmes Beach resident Rex Hagen, who donated $50,000 last June toward creating a park in Anna Maria on the six vacant lots at the east end of Pine Avenue, wonders why Anna Maria Commission Chair Chuck Webb is just now questioning his pledge and $100,000 donated by Pine Avenue Restoration LLC.

The city commission approved the plan and pledges at its June 27 meeting based on a design drawn by then-Commissioner Gene Aubry. Aubry, and architect, donated his talents to the project.

However, at the Nov. 14 public hearing for the park site plan, Webb said he wanted the commission to review the documents signed by the city in June that accepted Hagen’s and PAR’s donations for park amenities such as trees, landscaping and restrooms.

Following the June 27 meeting, the city began preparing a site plan for the property, even though it’s public land. The city administration, as a separate body from the commission, must file a site plan for any development, Mayor SueLynn said. The city must follow its code.

The commission voted Nov. 14 to continue the site plan hearing to Dec. 5.

Hagen subsequently told The Islander in a phone interview and in a follow-up email that Webb’s action is “the latest stall” on developing the park.

“If Mr. Webb wants to review documents and minutes and the work done on the park, fine. Let him go do it. While he is doing all that, let’s proceed with the project as agreed and finish what was started two years ago,” Hagen said.

Anna Maria paid about $2.5 million for the vacant lots in September 2011.

Hagen says the city has “sat without doing a thing for two years. No wonder it cost four times as much to work for governmental agencies versus private enterprise.”

Hagen said he and Ed Chiles, a PAR principal, agreed more than two years ago that the city needed seed money to get the park moving. After their donations, the park concept began to move forward, Hagen said.

“The trees are in and doing great, irrigation water is in and things were happening. This current setback is a tempest in a teapot, if I may pull from Shakespeare, and it will blow over as quickly as it came,” Hagen said.

“Pine Avenue needs a public restroom and the park needs parking. How complicated is that? Let’s quit nit-picking and get on with it.”

Hagen said that if the city halts construction of the park or eliminates the restrooms or parking, he wants his money returned.

 

Mayor calls halt on park work

      SueLynn said she has halted work at the park at the east end of Pine Avenue until the city commission votes on the park site plan submitted — which is expected to take place at the continuation of the public hearing in December.

She said irrigation of the trees planted in the park would continue, but no further planting of trees or landscaping work will take place.

No city funds have been spent on the park, she said, only a portion of Hagen’s $50,000 donation for the park from has been spent on trees, plants and the irrigation system.

No evidence of homicide in death of Sheena Morris

The five-year quest to decide whether a 22-year-old Tampa woman took her own life in a Bradenton Beach motel room or whether she was murdered has been put to rest.

On Nov. 21, at around 4 p.m., Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale received a phone call from the Florida State Attorney’s Office informing him that there was no evidence of homicide in the death of Sheena Morris.

Morris was found dead on New Year’s Day 2009 in a Bridgewalk Resort motel room, 100 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach. She was discovered in the bathroom, hanging by a blue dog leash from the showerhead.

Assistant State Attorney Art Brown has been reviewing the case file since the conclusion of hundreds of hours of Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation on a case reopened by Speciale, on FDLE’s recommendation.

The recommendation to administratively reopen the case came after a three-year public campaign by Morris’ mother, Kelly Osborn, who insisted that her daughter was murdered. She challenged the 2009 suicide ruling from 12th District Medical Examiner Dr. Russell Vega.

Vega’s conclusion was based on the fact that there was no evidence of foul play, according to Bradenton Beach Police Lt. Lenard Diaz, as well as crime scene investigators from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

After devoting substantial resources to an investigation, the case has come full circle to the original findings — no foul play.

“They found no evidence of a homicide and no charges will be filed in this case,” said Speciale.

“There were no surprises stemming from the investigation,” he said. “Most of the information found by FDLE was initially generated by our investigation when the incident occurred.”

Morris has had harsh words for the BBPD investigation, Speciale and Diaz, often using social media to allege the department’s inept investigation capabilities.

The conclusion stands up to what Speciale and Diaz have maintained all along, but Speciale said this is not a situation to celebrate the effectiveness of his department’s investigative abilities.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘vindicated,’” said Speciale. “I have been asked that a lot and that’s not the right sentiment. This was a terrible tragedy. A young woman took her own life and nothing is going to change that. So, do I feel vindicated? No. I do feel relieved that this will be behind us.”

 

Second investigation

Osborn publicly pushed for three years for her daughter’s case to be reopened, insisting Joe Genoese, her daughter’s fiance, was directly involved with her death.

Osborn then hired Dr. Michael Berkland, a former medical examiner working in private practice, to review the case file.

Berkland concluded from photos that the crime scene was likely staged. Berkland convinced Vega the cause of death was questionable and he changed it from suicide to undetermined.

Osborn appealed to Speciale to reopen the case, but Speciale insisted the investigation was closed.

The producers from the “Dr. Phil” TV program  called Genoese, who agreed to go on the show with Osborn and to take a lie detector test, and the results of the test by the hired examiner were not conclusive, but the show’s polygraph examiner implied Genoese was lying.

However, documents now show that Genoese agreed to a second polygraph sometime during the FDLE investigation and that he “was not deceptive in any answers.”

Osborn also repeatedly stated she was in possession of the proverbial smoking gun that could prove Morris was murdered. Police repeatedly requested her evidence, but never received it.

In 2012, Berkland was discredited after being arrested for illegally storing human organs in household containers inside a Pensacola storage facility.

Information then surfaced that Berkland was twice fired from medical examiner duties for improper filing of autopsy reports.

Morris stood by Berkland and told The Islander that it was no different from a businessman bringing home paperwork.

In September 2012, FDLE conducted a SMART panel to review the BBPD investigation. They found nothing wrong with Diaz’s investigation, but recommended further research into the case, and Speciale agreed to follow up on the recommendations with help from FDLE special agents.

 

The investigation

In a 44-page report filed by FDLE Special Agents Carl Shedlock and Chris Seimers, the case is relived from the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009, when Morris was found dead.

The ensuing criminal investigation performed by BBPD, MCSO and the medical examiner found no physical evidence that Morris had been involved in a physical struggle prior to her death.

Toxicology reports showed Morris had been drinking, but had not taken any illegal drugs. Following her death, police were told by her mother that Morris was bi-polar, had experienced a prior drug overdose and suffered “mental issues due to friends committing suicide in the past.”

Morris had attended a funeral of a close friend who died of suicide only a week before her death.

The investigation also revealed that one of Morris’ male friends had committed suicide two months prior — by hanging himself with a blue dog leash.

Osborn told police that Morris had previously attempted suicide and that her daughter “needed help.”

She later denied making those statements and called Diaz’s report an “utter fabrication.”

The report also states that Berkland was not the first pathologist hired by Osborn.

In July 2010, Osborn requested New York pathologist Dr. Michael Baden perform a second autopsy. Morris was exhumed and Baden’s report showed no new information.

The report states that Genoese said the couple were at the Bridgewalk as a getaway because Morris was depressed. Genoese called his children to wish them a happy New Year shortly after midnight, which allegedly started an argument with Morris.

Genoese said he was leaving with or without Morris, who opted to stay and police were able to use cellphone records to track Genoese all the way back to Indian Rocks Beach in Pinellas County, as the couple continued to talk and text as he drove home.

 

Morris’ friends speak out

Rebecca Anaya was interviewed in October 2012, claiming to be friends with Morris and Genoese. Anaya and Morris met while working as exotic dancers.

Anaya told FDLE agents that Morris confided in her that she suffered from depression and would often help her get through those moments that Anaya called Morris’ “dark place.”

A few weeks before Morris’ death, Anaya said her friend began giving her some of her possessions, such as shoes and dresses and hid a $100 check in Anaya’s purse. Morris gave her a key to her apartment, saying it was “just in case anything ever happens.”

Anaya told the agents she believes Morris killed herself due to a “deepening spiral of depression.” She said she was no longer on speaking terms with Osborn because she partly blames her for Morris’ death. Morris told Anaya that her mother often “meddled in her relationship” with Genoese.

Another friend, Lee Ann Blackshear, said the 2008 suicide of Morris’ former boyfriend affected her deeply and friend Ashlie Knisley confirmed what Anaya had told authorities about Osborn’s mental impact on Morris by “inserting herself” into her daughter’s life.

 

Psychological autopsy

In June 2013, FDLE retained Dr. John Super, a licensed and board certified forensic psychologist to conduct a psychological autopsy, a procedure to assess the facts of the case and determine Morris’ suicide risk.

Super concluded that Morris’ risk of suicide was higher than her self-protected state of mind.

He also reviewed the case and determined that reports in other media outlets about there being no sand in the room and that the shower had been wiped clean were inaccurate.

Those statements were initially made by Berkland to convince some that the crime scene was staged, but Super reports that enlarged photos clearly show sand on the shower floor, near Morris’ feet and on the threshold leading into the shower.

Conspiracy theorists, both private and working in the media, made false conclusions that the sand had been vacuumed in an attempt to “clean” the crime scene.

Water droplets also were apparent, showing nothing had been wiped down in the shower, as implied.

The report discredits some consultants hired by the Osborn family as “recognized experts.”

The report further states that other media outlets made claims that conflicted with the facts of the case.

Some of the erroneous reports in other media outlets included unattributed statements, such as Morris having unexplained bruising, that she was unhappy in her relationship with Genoese and that her pant cuffs were in a position consistent with a person being dragged.

 

Conclusions

The investigation concluded that Genoese was not in Manatee County at the time of Morris’ death and that Morris did not suffer any injuries unrelated to the hanging.

The issues raised by Berkland regarding the staged crime scene suspicion “were shown not to be consistent with the facts shown in the investigation.”

In fact, the investigation concludes that there were multiple photos that contradicted any theory that the crime scene was staged.

Speciale said his confidence in the outcome of the investigation never swayed.

“I’ve always been confident in the abilities of detective Diaz,” he said. “I have appreciated all of the support and assistance from MCSO’s crime scene technicians and the FDLE agents who spent countless hours assisting us, and for the state attorney’s office for taking time to review the evidence and coming to this conclusion.”

Osborn was interviewed by broadcast news stations following the public release of information regarding the FDLE and state attorney’s office conclusions.

She initially told reporters that she would accept the state’s decision and continue to help other families who have gone through similar experiences.

She does not believe Morris committed suicide.

In later interviews, Osborn has claimed that the FDLE investigation is flawed.

Critics: HB mayor propagandizes prior to municipal election

Propaganda is defined as “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also, a public action having such an effect” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Several people among the Holmes Beach electorate say a mailing received in their mailboxes Nov. 4 from Mayor Carmel Monti was designed to sway the Nov. 5 election toward candidates of his choice. The critics say city funds were misused on Monti’s mailer.

Monti’s seven-page mailer highlighted his administration’s accomplishments the past year, including a claim that taxes have not increased since he took office almost a year ago. While the millage rate stayed the same, taxes and spending increased by more than 5 percent in Monti’s first budget year.

He also touted accomplishments in finance, building and public works, administration, police and code enforcement.

The mailer made no specific mention of the Nov. 5 election or any candidate, but made note of a “criminal investigation” regarding “the former building (department) administration and a company doing work for the city.”

Monti said the case is with the state attorney’s office, and the city plans to seek $92,830.50 in restitution. The city claims payments made included work that was not performed by the contractor.

He also said towing of illegally parked vehicles has increased and “this was not done before.”

The mayor thanked city commissioners for “making this a successful year.”

Melissa Williams, one of five running for three commission seats in the Nov. 5 municipal election, along with former Mayor Rich Bohnenberger and former Pennsylvania legislator Scott Boyd, said Monti was wrong to use city staff and funds on his “Year End Report for City Hall — Let’s Celebrate Our Success.”

Williams said she was “disgusted to learn that the city’s money was used as a political tool. As a candidate, I’m not surprised. The gross misuse of city hall power continues.”

She added that this type of misuse of public funds needs to cease, and that she hoped to provide a check and balance on city spending, but was unsuccessful as a candidate.

“No matter which way you look at it, of course, it was unethical. This is not Holmes Beach,” Williams said, reflecting on past cooperation among elected officials.

The critics also noted there was false information contained in the mailer, particularly the mayor’s claim that taxes were not increased in his term in office.

City clerk Stacey Johnston confirmed the mailer was sent to a Holmes Beach voter’s list obtained from the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office.

Johnston said staff copied the two-sided three-page letter and a sample property tax notice, folded and placed them in envelopes and labeled them with the voter address. Only one letter was mailed to each address, she said.

The mailing was handled by AMPM Mailing Service of Bradenton, at a cost of $775.49, Johnston said.

The process to print and fold copies and stuff the envelopes took city hall staff about two weeks, she said, but it was done by staff in addition to other duties.

In addition, Commissioners Jean Peelen, Judy Titsworth and Marvin Grossman assisted in the process, Johnston said.

Johnston said the process used 8,096 sheets of paper and 2,024 envelopes for mailing. AMPM invoiced for 2,482 pieces mailed. The bulk mail postage was $573.42 plus 15 foreign pieces at $1.10 each, or $16.50.

She said she would have to do some calculations to determine the cost of paper and envelopes, and she referred the staff cost to the mayor.

The city, by ordinance, charges the newspaper 15 cents per page and 20 cents for two-sided copies of records. At that rate, based on 2,482 mailed pieces, the copies amount to $1,861.50.

Monti said the cost was minimal compared to having voters know what is happening in the city.

Boyd, who moved to Holmes Beach in January and served 10 years in the Pennsylvania Legislature, was outraged to learn city money was used by Monti to “further his political agenda.”

Boyd said he’s never heard of a mayor who can use city money to highlight his or her agenda or accomplishments. Boyd also noted Monti said his letter was a “year-end report” but it arrived in the mail Nov. 4, while Monti was sworn into office Nov. 15, 2012.

“It’s a small point, but it’s not quite a year,” Boyd said. There weren’t a great number of accomplishments in his first few weeks or months in office and the budget had already been set for the year.

“But using public funds is a big point. When any elected representative, from the president to the governor, a state representative, a county commissioner or mayor uses his or her official position and taxpayer resources to affect the outcome of an election, there is reason for concern,” Boyd said.

“If it’s not illegal, it should be and, at the least, it’s unethical,” he said. “We expect our elected officials to do what’s right, not just what is legal.”

Boyd suggested Monti should have used his own money — or campaign funds — if he wanted to mail out a list of his achievements to voters.

Bohnenberger, who lost to Monti in 2012, said he gave an annual report presentation and copies to the commission at a public meeting and also furnished it to the news media.

“It’s an outrageous waste of taxpayer money for the city to pay for the mailing,” Bohnenberger said.

“Additionally, the letter only went to voters, not residents or property owners. That’s a selected list done obviously to promote the election,” he said.

“Every property owner, every resident, deserves the same information. That’s why I gave my report to the media. The mayor’s report is for everybody with a vested interest in Holmes Beach,” Bohnenberger said.

Monti, however, said he saw nothing wrong with mailing voters an update.

“I sent out an update at six months and now at 12 months,” Monti said. “I’ve gotten so many compliments from voters thanking me for keeping them up-to-date. Many said it’s the first time in 20 years they knew what was going on at city hall. I feel it’s necessary and it’s my duty to inform citizens.”

Monti said the timing of the report just happened to be before the election.

Asked why he didn’t release his report to the news media, Monti said he wanted to make sure the full content of his report was available to read.

As of last week, no official complaint had been filed with either the Florida Ethics Commission or the Florida Elections Commission.

A lawyer with the FEC said a formal complaint on misuse of public funds would have to be filed and the nine-member commission would consider if it was unethical. Each complaint is handled on an individual basis, the lawyer said.

To her knowledge, there is no statute the prohibits such mailings, as long as there is no request for funds, a campaign endorsement or even a hint of support for a candidate in that governing area in the mailer.

She referred to Section 112.313(6) of the FEC opinions on misuse of public funds.

That section states, in part, that “whether a corrupt misuse of official position has occurred in a given situation depends on how and for what purpose the stationery will be used, rather than upon the fact of its use.”

 

 

Monti’s mail, approximate costs

AMPM fees, including postage:                 $775.49

Copies (3 two-sided pages, one single page):

$1,861.50

Envelopes (6 boxes, 500 each):                   $51.00

Staff time (composition, copying, folding, stuffing):

Unknown

Commissioners time:      Priceless

Top Anna Maria spender wins commission seat

Sometimes, spending money gets the job done.

Carol Carter was elected to a seat on the Anna Maria City Commission Nov. 5. She also spent the most money on her campaign.

Information available from the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office shows Carter had $1,100 in her campaign treasury and spent $882.84. She also reported $126 as “in-kind” work.

Carter received $100 donations from former Mayor Fran Barford and former Commissioner Christine Tollette. She also received $100 from her husband Bob, and $100 each from Anna Maria residents Sarah York and Chris Collins. Campaign treasurer Sandy Mattick donated $34 to the campaign.

Also elected to the commission was Doug Copeland, who was appointed to the commission in June. Copeland spent no money and collected nothing for his campaign.

Incumbent Dale Woodland was re-elected for his sixth term. Woodland reported $900 as “in-kind” donations and spent $352.

Candidate Michael Jaworski, who was not elected, did not receive any donations and spent no money on his campaign.

Bradenton Beach officials take oath of office

It was standing room only at Bradenton Beach City Hall for the Nov. 18 swearing in ceremony of newly elected officials — primarily due to a decision to remove the chairs from the chambers prior to the ceremony.

However, a couple dozen dignitaries, friends and family members crowded around to see Mayor Bill Shearon, Ward 1 Commissioner Janie Robertson and Ward 3 Commissioner Jack Clarke officially take office.

Acting city clerk Karen Cervetto swore Clarke into office, while Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore conducted the swearing-in ceremonies of Robertson and Shearon, who the new mayor called a “close and personal friend.”

Shearon said he looks forward to strengthening ties with officials in the county, as well the island cities.

“I look forward to the chance to make Bradenton Beach a better place for our residents and our visitors,” said Shearon, who brought to the dais other city officials and department heads. “This will be a team effort in moving this city forward.”

Robertson was joined on the dais for her swearing-in ceremony by her son Steven, who held a Bible during his mother’s oath. Robertson was the only city official who chose to use a Bible in her ceremony.

She took back the seat on the commission that she held for six years before terming out of office in 2011. She narrowly defeated former Commissioner Ric Gatehouse to regain her seat. Gatehouse attended the ceremony to wish the incoming officials well.

County Commissioners Betsy Benac and John Chappie, formerly mayor and city commissioner, were among the attendees, along with city Commissioner Jan Vosburgh and Vice Mayor Ed Straight.

Whitmore thanked everyone for attending, saying, “This is our democratic process in action.”

Jumper backs up Manatee Avenue traffic

A man who jumped off the Manatee Avenue Bridge the afternoon of Nov. 21 caused serious traffic delays.

A Manatee County Sheriff’s Office report was not available as of Islander press time.

The Holmes Beach Police Department provided assistance and, according to Police Chief Bill Tokajer, the man was not attempting to hurt himself.

Tokajer said law enforcement received calls of a possible suicide attempt, but it turned out the man was attempting to poach crab traps in the area waters.

Due to the nature of the call being a possible suicide attempt, police blocked the bridge from traffic.

The nature of the charges, or if the man was charged with a crime, was not known as of press time.

Holmes Beach commissioners return to the dais

Three Holmes Beach commissioners climbed back into the proverbial saddle Nov. 18, as swearing-in ceremonies took place at city hall following a Nov. 5 election that nearly saw a commissioner unseated and included a recount.

That wasn’t the case, however, and Commissioners Jean Peelen, Pat Morton and David Zaccagnino were successful after the votes were counted — twice.

City clerk Stacey Johnston performed the honors for the three commissioners, but first conducted a group swearing in of the charter review committee.

David Cheshire, Travis Casper, Pam Leckie, James Plath and Bob Johnson will serve in the capacity for the next 12 months. During that time, they will review and recommend changes to the city charter.

It’s a process undertaken every five years, but this is the first time in recent memory a full slate of five candidates stepped up to run for the committee. Since there were five candidates for five seats, each was elected to the job.

Johnston said the election process went well this year prior to Peelen, Morton and Zaccagnino raising their right hands to swear to an oath of public office.

Following the ceremony, the commissioners resumed their seats on the dais for an organizational meeting where Commissioner Marvin Grossman nominated Commissioner Judy Titsworth to serve as commission chair.

Holmes Beach typically rotates the position yearly and there were no other nominations. Titsworth was unanimously voted to the position.

Her first order of business was to take nominations for vice chair and Grossman nominated Peelen, the former chair, for the position. She also was unanimously approved.

“I learned a lot from watching Jean this year and I thank her for her service,” said Titsworth.

Morton and Grossman called for an end to squabbling among commissioners, much of which was sparked during the election.

Mayor Carmel Monti agreed and congratulated the three winners, offering hopes of moving the city forward in a positive direction.

Former island real estate agent arrested

A former Anna Maria Island vacation real estate agent was arrested Nov. 12 for operating without a real estate license.

Michael Carleton, 61, was booked and held on $1,500 bond, but immediately posted bond and was released.

Carleton was already under investigation by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Real Estate, following complaints early this year that he double-booked island vacation homes.

Complainants allege Carleton could not be contacted from out of state after paying deposits, or at times, he would only agree to partial refunds, which frustrated renters who were hoping to recoup some of their money.

The Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce said they fielded numerous complaints about Carleton’s alleged shady rental practices.

He was under criminal investigation by the Holmes Beach Police Department, at which time Carleton’s island office shut down. He posted a forwarding address to Sarasota.

HBPD turned the investigation over to the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Postal Service in May. In the interim, the state suspended Carleton’s license in March after he allegedly paid $10,000 for a property at 106 55th St., Holmes Beach, into the escrow account for his rental agency, Coast Line Accommodations, instead of Coast Line Realtors, his registered employer.

More than 60 complaints were filed with the HBPD prior to the case being turned over to the federal government, which is ongoing.

Tourist development tax skyrockets above annual record

Collections of the tax on accommodations have rocketed to more than 10 percent over the previous year’s record-setting pace in Manatee County.

Manatee County Tourist Development Tax, often called the resort or bed tax, set a record of $8.993 million for the 2013 fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

That amounted to an 11 percent increase over the previous record of $8.101 million set in fiscal year 2011-12.

The resort tax is the 5 percent collected on rentals of six months or less in Manatee County.

Collections for September 2013 were $457,918, a jump of 19.2 percent from the $384,028 collected in September 2012.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman said the continuing increase in resort tax collections corresponds to continuing increase in accommodation occupancy and visitor arrivals on Anna Maria Island.

“We seem to be going up in tourism every month, and keeping pace with the resort tax jumps,” Brockman said. “September, which is usually very slow, was very busy for a lots of members.”

Brockman attributed the increase to aggressive marketing of Anna Maria Island by the BACVB and the value-for-dollar that visitors receive for the ambiance of the island.

The resort tax is used to fund the county’s portion of beach renourishment, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the Bradenton Area Convention Center, the Powel Crosley Estate and Museum and other public venues in the county.

The latest statistics from the BACVB reported third quarter tourism in the Bradenton area up 6.5 percent for the same nine months in 2012.

Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism website, reported 22.9 million visitors came to the state from July to September, a jump of 1.7 percent from the same period in 2012.

For the year-to-date, Visit Florida said tourism is up 3.4 percent from 2012. Visit Florida reported 72.6 million visitors to the state through the first nine months of 2013.

Manatee County resort tax collections for the fiscal year 2010-11 were $7.1 million. Of the past 13 years, the only drop was 2007-08 when collections were $5 million, which was $200,000 less than 2006-07.