County Fair Unites Manatee while the US Government Shuts Down

The Manatee County Fair wrapped up its final weekend of festivities at the county fairgrounds in Palmetto, hosted by the Manatee County River Association. The fair promised “Good Food, Good Rides, Good Times” one last weekend for fairgoers to usher in 2018, even as early Saturday morning marked the beginning of the federal government shutdown following the one year anniversary of Trump presidency on Friday, according to CBS News. Despite these recent national events, fair organizers were optimistic in how the fair unifies Manatee County in times of adversity.

“There’s folks from every corner of this county that are involved with the fair,” said fair manager Daniel West, 48. “That’s what makes the fair so special, it’s almost like a homecoming for Manatee County.”

According to Manatee County Supervisor of Elections, President Trump won 56 percent of the Manatee County vote in the 2016 general election. A recent Florida Atlantic University Poll reported in a November 2017 Palm Beach Post article placed the president’s approval ratings in the state of Florida at 41 percent, slightly higher than current national average of 39 percent according to Gallup Poll featured in a January 16 Associated Press article.

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Fairgoers were enjoying the warm weather after the bitter cold snap in early January. (Photo: Alexander Michael Buono)

“The government shut down nationally doesn’t affect me as much as the issues locally,” said Jason Drane, 39, a media professional and supporter of the president from Bradenton, who visited the fair along with his wife Gloria, 38, and two foster children.

“While we may not be shutting down the county government, we need to do some overhaul of some of the facilities are county does use, such as Centerstone, DCF and the various child welfare agencies,” Drane said.

“Otherwise these kids have no hope,” Gloria added.

The county fair has an enduring legacy when the nation has faced difficult times. In its 102 years of offering amusement for Manatee, the fair survived a loss of funding during the Great Depression and the brief discontinuation during the years of World War II according to the Manatee River Fair Association website.

“It means a lot to our county,” said West. “I think that we’re going to finish this weekend out with a bang and I think everybody is going to be real pleased with our turnout.”

For more information about the Manatee County Fair, click here.

Homeless of Manatee County Find Refuge in Woodland Campsite

THE HomelesS OF MANATEE COUNTY
17th Street East is an industrial backroad lined by towing and auto service companies, where the pavement gives way to a dusty dirt road as you reach its dead end. It is at this dead end where Oneco’s homeless community have constructed their woodland campsite after being displaced by the La Mexicana Flea Market fire reported in the Bradenton Herald in Dec. of 2016.

homeless trailer
An abandoned trailer homes several campsite residents. (Photo: Alexander Michael Buono)
“The police have changed,” said Sonia T, one of the encampment’s newer residents,(who asked not to be identified). Sonia added, “We like the people who bring food, but they haven’t been around here for a while.”
According to last year’s Point-In-Time Survey conducted by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, the homeless count for the area in Manatee County outside of Bradenton has increased from 23 to 242 persons. Several non-profit agencies along with Suncoast have worked with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office in offering to provide services to the homeless communities across the county.
“We will visit homeless camps and supply the people that are there that they can get help, whether it be the Salvation Army or there are several organizations here that will help the homeless,” according to Dave Bristow of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

From inside the 17th Street East campsite, the homeless community tent homes are made up of salvaged building materials, such as plumbing fixtures, cement blocks and scrap lumber. Many of the residents have bartering system for tools and other wares that aid in their day to day survival. In the recent months, the winter cold and living within a floodplain has created challenges to the community.

Homeless Camp
Josh’s two-story structure that he himself has constructed. (Photo: Alexander Michael Buono)
“It wasn’t Irma, but actually a storm two weeks before that flooded the whole area, water up to these tracks,” said Josh, a man in his 50’s who has hand built the two-story structure set back from the train tracks (above). “I’ve lived in Buffalo, Sarasota, and this community is the most difficult to live in.”

For more information on how to get involved the non-profit special projects geared to helping Manatee County’s homeless, click here.

The Prospects of Housing Bradenton’s Homeless in 2018

According to the Point in Time census survey conducted this year by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, the total number of homeless persons has declined from 474 in 2016, to 328 persons this past year. Despite this decrease in the number of homeless people in town, the City of Bradenton’s community redevelopment plan is a top priority for Bradenton officials heading into 2018.

(Avery Burke, senior specialist of homeless outreach for Centerstone Behavioral Hospital in Bradenton, Florida, describes his journey to homeless outreach in Bradenton, Florida on Dec. 12, 2017. Information Source: Alex M Buono)

Avery Burke (see video above) is the senior specialist in Homeless Outreach for Centerstone Behavioral Hospital’s access center located in Bradenton, Florida. For Burke, a lifelong resident of Bradenton, coming into the awareness of the scale and size of Bradenton’s homeless population was a revelation he didn’t have until he started his professional journey.
 
“Once the door was open, it was like a mind-opening experience,” said Burke. “I didn’t notice all of this was there.”
 
According to the recommendations of the City of Bradenton’s Community Development Block Grant Program Consolidated Action Plan for the years 2017 to 2021, a stated goal for transitional housing is a city-subsidized program overseen by a non-profit with experience in transitional housing. The recent increase in population growth of residents in Bradenton and Manatee Counties as reported in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2016, make the efforts for transitional and long-term housing of the homeless all the more urgent.
 
“We researched how we can do more affordable stuff,” Burke said. He continued, “You have the push on tiny homes, tiny home communities, all of the smaller; style one and two-person homes that can be built more affordably.”
 
In recent years, the downtown area of Bradenton has been undergoing an urban renaissance with the expansion of the Village of the Arts (VOTA) and the creation of the Bradenton Riverwalk. In 2013, the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority (DDA) proposed the multi-year urban revitalization project entitled “The Village Tapestry.” In June of 2015, the DDA stated that the goal for the Village of the Arts expansion was to acquire properties for mixed-used redevelopment that are, “targeted to a mix of Millennials, Boomers, and creative professionals who want to live, work, create, and play in an Urban Environment.”
 
Professor James Wright, co-author of Poor and Homeless in the Sunshine State: Down and Out in Theme Park Nation and the Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Florida, says this type of housing focus is not new to the state.
 
“The absurdity and the tragedy is that the state has been through four decades of housing and population growth yet almost no attention has been paid to housing the poor. So, while there is lots of housing, there is very little affordable housing,” Burke said.
 
Wright added, “And what little there is, is threatened by gentrification and ‘revitalization’ efforts.”
 
The multiple projects for downtown revitalization have faced some pushback in the recent years, most volubly during a June 2015 city council vote, in which the council consolidated its control over the various community redevelopment agencies because some community members appealed to the council for more community involvement.

(Artist Mark Burrow describes the transformation of the Village of the Arts in Bradenton, Florida on Dec. 12, 2017. Information Source: Alex M Buono)

One newcomer to the Village of the Arts neighborhood, Mark Burrow (see video above), owner of the Art Junkies gallery and a longtime Sarasota resident and artist, cautioned that the City of Bradenton might be losing focus due to the multiple projects. “We’re still not done here. This (VOTA) has been almost twenty years in the making, and we’re still not connected to the Riverwalk.” Burrow added, “So starting new projects, great, but kinda focus on one at a time.”
To Avery Burke, the solution to house the homeless population in Bradenton is reaching out to those landlords and building owners willing to help. “It’s finding that person that has a heart and is willing to help in putting in as many people as they can.”
 
For more information on Centerstone’s mental health services, click here.
 
For more information on the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, click here.

Hiding in Plain Sight – Manatee County Law Enforcement’s Complex relationship with Cameras

Manatee County Law Enforcement is one of the select counties in Florida that has not opted to integrate body-worn cameras within its ranks and yet, has found recent success utilizing automated license plate readers as a tool to combat crime in Manatee County, according to recent articles in the Bradenton Herald and WFLA.com.
 
The beginning of 2017 sparked a new public policy debate in the state of Florida surrounding surveillance and body camera technologies.
 
In 2017, the Florida state senate bill 624, co-sponsored by Senator Greg Steube (R), son of recently retired Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, was passed into law. SB 624 along with House Bill 305, mandates that along with establishing policy procedures for body-worn camera technologies, a provision allows law enforcement officers to review body camera footage before writing their official report or providing testimony. In the previous years of 2014 and 2015, the state legislature passed SB 226 and SB 248, two laws that were devised to create public record exemptions due to privacy concerns of individual citizens regarding automated license plate reader systems and body-worn cameras, respectively.
Despite these legal provisions attempting to address privacy concerns of individuals under information-gathering camera technologies, civil rights organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida continue to argue for citizen privacy and access to police recordings as a matter of public record in the state of Florida.
 
In the Florida Sheriffs Association Legislative Report for 2017, the report states in response to the passing of SB 624 and HB 305, Florida Sheriffs will, “have to update their policies and procedures related to body-worn cameras to allow an officer to review body camera footage before writing a report or making a statement about an incident.”
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office has consistently supported the legislative agenda set by the state’s sheriffs association. In a 2015 Bradenton Herald article detailing local law enforcement reactions to the passing of HB 93, requiring law enforcement agencies to develop procedural rules for body-worn cameras, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, Dave Bristow stated that the department was still in a holding pattern and monitoring how agencies were doing.
 
According to a 2013 Bulletin published by the Department of Justice on Local Police Equipment and Technology, an “estimated 32% of departments reported they provided body-worn cameras for at least some of their patrol officers.” The DOJ findings in the bulletin reported further that, “An estimated 17% of departments used automated license plate readers in 2013.”
More recently in 2017, a pilot study on Citizen Perceptions of Body-Worn Cameras in Arlington, Texas was conducted by independent research foundation, The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). In their findings, PERF found that despite survey results indicating no differences between citizen perceptions of officers who wore or did not wear body-worn cameras, there was a reported 38 percent drop in complaints of officers trained in body-worn camera technology a year later.
 
Two years after the passing of HB 93 and new passages of HB 305 and SB 624, there appears to be no change in the legislative or budgetary priorities at Manatee County’s
Sheriff’s Office concerning body-worn cameras.
 
According to statistics featured in the office’s proposed 2017-2018 fiscal budget, the increase in service requests took five years to reach 300,000 calls, in contrast, it took the previous 20 years to reach 200,000. In light of the increased volume of service, the current operating budget is slated to rise to 13.5 million.
In January of 2017, the ACLU updated its current recommendations for Body-Camera policing, stating, “we hope that these best practices will become widespread in order to ensure that body cameras are not reduced to yet another surveillance tool, but actually serve their intended function as a check and balance on police power.”
For more information on the Manatee County Sherriff’s Office, click here.

Manatee County Protesters Confront School Board at Tuesday’s Meeting

Four student protesters confronted the Manatee County School District Board about the student code of conduct requiring written consent from a parent or guardian to engage in the “take a knee” protest of the national anthem and pledge of allegiance.

(Protest organizer Mercury Clarke and others confronted the board on Tuesday)

The board received impassioned pleas from students and individual community members condemning the district’s recent defense of the student code as a violation of the constitutional rights of Manatee County students.

 

“Manatee County should be ashamed of itself for standing on the side of white supremacy and taking the wrong side of history with its directive,” said Ruth Beltran, a community organizer representing Action Together Suncoast and mother of a Manatee County student, to the district board. “I expect the school district to rectify this directive, to make right where it has done wrong.”

The backdrop of the national protests started by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has served as a cultural flashpoint in sparking student protests nationwide, according to Axios. The current wave of student protests challenging the status quo across Florida has forced school administrators to scramble in response.
 
Manatee County should be ashamed of itself for standing on the side of white supremacy and taking the wrong side of history with its directive,” said Ruth Beltran, a community organizer representing Action Together Suncoast and mother of a Manatee County student, to the district board. “I expect the school district to rectify this directive, to make right where it has done wrong.
 
In a recent report from WJXT in Jacksonville on October 5, a Jacksonville private school required student-athletes to sign a contract without notifying parents, stating in the contract that they would stand for the national anthem at school sporting events.
For Manatee County, the board’s outlining of the school’s policy took place in mid-June, before the upsurge in student demonstrations according to district board chair, Charlie Kennedy.
In a previous interview with student protest co-organizer Leah Tiberini, the student code of conduct’s mandate is representative of the culture of intimidation promulgated by a faction of faculty and students against other students that are supportive of the protest movement.
 
The students will always win you know, this was a direct attack on us, this is our rights,” said Clarke.
 
“Obviously, the role of a teacher is to make kids feel secure, and if there’s a situation where a student feels like they’re being harassed or intimidated by a teacher, that needs to go to the principal right away,” said Kennedy said in a response following Tuesday’s meeting.
During the meeting, Hal Trejo, 20, a transgender student activist representing the student protesters echoed Tiberini’s sentiment and went a step further. Trejo cited district data from a 2016 Bradenton Herald article that Black students are suspended three times as often as white students in Manatee County public schools and are now subject to, “being stifled in attempting to speaking out against said injustices.”
 
District General Counsel Mitchell Teitelbaum stated, “Our student code of conduct codifies (Florida State Statute) 1003.44” in his closing remarks to the board on Tuesday.
 
“It’s not political, it’s legal,” he said. “And we are upholding this statute.”
 
In response to Teitelbaum’s defense of the code, district chair Kennedy reiterated to the board that the conversation on the district policy has just begun.
 
“I think there’s probably a legal challenge on the way, and we as the board are going to have to do what we are elected to do,” Kennedy said.
 
It’s not political, it’s legal,” he said. “And we are upholding this statute.” – Mitchell Teitelbaum, Manatee County General Counsel.
 
Following the meeting, student protest co-organizer Mercury Clarke said she was feeling optimistic.
 
“The students will always win you know, this was a direct attack on us, this is our rights,” said Clarke.
 
For more information on how to get involved in the organizing efforts, visit here.
 
For upcoming public hearings and workshops with the Manatee County School District,
click here.