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Bradenton Times: New Supervisor of Elections gets 26% budget boost

Written by on Wednesday, May 29, 2024

James Satcher, recently appointed by the governor, cites concerns about ‘voter integrity’ and ‘election security’.

By Dawn Kitterman

The Bradenton Times

MANATEE COUNTY — On Tuesday, the Manatee County Commission approved Supervisor of Elections James Satcher’s request for an FY24 budget increase in a 4-1 vote. Though few details were provided showing the accounting utilized to calculate the requested increase figure of $841,340, two commissioners spoke strongly in support of the measure.

The increase represents a more than 26% increase in the SOE’s current fiscal year budget, which has just four months remaining.

Manatee County CFO Shelia McLean introduced the budget amendment item on Tuesday, telling commissioners that Satcher would address them concerning the budget increase request on behalf of the SOE’s Chief of Staff David Ballard.

The item was number 43 on the agenda, and as the prior item, number 42, was closing out, the dais was half empty as commissioners had quietly stepped away during the tail-end of item 42’s presentation.

When item 42 was ready for a vote, not enough commissioners were present on the dais to make a quorum and a vote could not immediately be cast, but by the time Satcher approached the chamber podium to speak to his budget increase request (agenda item 43), Commissioners Kevin Van Ostenbridge, Jason Bearden and Amanda Ballard had returned to their seats.

Satcher opened his comments by reading directly from a May 13 letter he had addressed to County Administrator Charlie Bishop. The letter, which had previously been attached to the meeting agenda, was missing from the item’s supporting documents on Tuesday.

As late as this weekend, Tuesday’s agenda item for the SOE’s budget request included a 12-page attachment packet. Among the documents was Satcher’s letter, an itemized list of expenditures that were the basis of the increase request, a budget revision request form, a funding transfer slip, and a copy of the budget amendment resolution.

However, sometime between the weekend and Tuesday morning, the attachment packet, which was attached to the publicly posted agenda, was revised to include just a single document: the budget resolution.

Click here to view the agenda item packet as it appeared before Tuesday’s meeting, click here to view it as it appeared after revision, during the meeting.

Satcher told commissioners that while Manatee County has conducted its elections while maintaining the lowest Supervisor of Elections budget statewide, he had identified opportunities with software and technology upgrades that the requested increase would be used to purchase.

“All neighboring counties are using this audit software,” said Satcher. “So this should be a big improvement.”

The first commissioner to respond to Satcher’s presentation was Commissioner George Kruse who began by acknowledging how recently Satcher was appointed to the position of elections supervisor.

Kruse expressed concern that Satcher’s requested budget increase was coming so close to the end of the current fiscal year and the start of the next fiscal year, as well as to the upcoming elections.

“You get to a point where it is great to be improving things,” Kruse prefaced his question, “but at some point, you have to focus on performing. We’re at a point where you really need to start making sure the ballots are going out, making sure the machines are calibrated, making sure the poll workers (inaudible), is this the best use of time?”

Addressing the intention to spend a portion of the requested budget increase on software and technology upgrades, Kruse referred to documents previously attached to the meeting’s agenda item.

“We’ve not been given a whole lot of information,” said Kruse as he addressed Satcher. “I just tried to pull up the information you had sent, but apparently, one of the updates to the agenda was removing all of the information.”

Referencing from memory the information that was previously available through the posted agenda, Kruse questioned how much of the increased budget request would be allocated to software and technology. Despite not having the itemized list available to him at the time, Kruse correctly recalled that roughly $40,000 of the requested $841,340 would be allocated to software and technology while approximately $277,000 was listed as intended for personnel salaries.

Interrupting Kruse, Satcher said, “Sorry, I don’t have those documents in front of me, but that is not correct.”

“That $277,000, that probably is the audit number that you are thinking of,” added Satcher.

Responding to Kruse’s concerns about the timing and whether the office had acquired all the necessary information to execute the changes as detailed in the budget request, Satcher told Kruse that while he had “talks beyond preliminary talks” concerning additional polling locations and satellite offices, there are “some steps” that he hadn’t “yet taken.”

Satcher said that his office had identified additional polling and office locations but had not finalized any of the details.

Regarding the software and equipment portion of the request, Satcher said he had met with the vendor last week and had gotten “familiar” with the new equipment they would purchase.

“It should be an easy process for my employees,” Satcher told Kruse. “I think that it’s important enough that we should be moving forward with these things, obviously, or I wouldn’t have brought it forward.”

Satcher stressed with his remarks that the budget request and changes he proposed were intended to “make sure the election was secure” and that “voter integrity was maintained.”

Kruse again pointed out that Satcher had only just become the elections supervisor in recent months and asked Satcher to detail the known and identified defects from previous local elections.

Satcher declined to do so, saying, “It’s not my style to see a problem behind the scenes—that I know and grasp right away when I see it—and then come here in front of everyone and air those things.”

Satcher elaborated that “most of what” he was referencing was related to security matters and would be inappropriate to detail regardless. He also spoke of changes he has made that included “removing” plexiglass dividers in the office he said were leftover from the pandemic.

Kruse remained hesitant to approve the budget increase request, reminding the board—and Satcher—of its decision last budget season when a different constitutional officer requested a budget increase.

Last budget season, when Satcher was still a county commissioner, he and the other board members expressed significant apprehensions about approving the budget presented by the County Clerk and Circuit Court Comptroller during annual budget presentations. In that office’s case, it sought an annual budget increase—not a budget amendment—to fund four new positions.

From the dais Tuesday, Kruse repeated comments that his colleagues said during a July 27, 2023, meeting regarding the Clerk’s previous fiscal year’s budget request. Included in those comments were the words of then-commissioner Satcher, who refused the clerk’s budget request, saying that she “had to make do with what she had.”

“We made the clerk come across the street and detail her request for over an hour,” Kruse recalled. “Going through every last job description… before this board was okay giving her two people, totaling less than $200,000.”

“We’ve run people through the wringer over these things,” Kruse added. “And here, I don’t even have the document showing your itemized summary because it’s been removed from the agenda.”

After the back-and-forth between Satcher and Kruse, Bearden provided a lengthy, impassioned dialogue supporting Satcher’s request. Bearden said the previous elections supervisor, Mike Bennett, was “very heavy on” mail-in ballots, which Bearden said “we know are not secure.”

“James Satcher has more integrity than anybody I know or that I have met in the last ten years,” Bearden proclaimed.

Bearden appeared to be reading from notes on the desk in front of him as he shared his recollection of the previous elections supervisor, having stated that “he would allow illegal aliens to vote.”

With his voice growing louder, Bearden said, “We have a neighboring county budget that is operating on three times more of a budget than Manatee County; we need to wake up. We need to wake up and see what’s really going on here because obviously there were some major issues in the Supervisors of Elections Office with Supervisor James Satcher came in and evaluated everything.”

Bearden said that he supported the request because he knows that the budget increase is “needed to run effective elections here in this county.”

Then, shouting into his microphone while looking toward Kruse, Bearden added, “And I’d hate to be the one, to be up here and vote against this, knowing the fact that elections are one of the most important things in today’s environment that we need to really take this as a serious, serious, agenda item that we need to increase this budget. Cause I know personally, that you need this budget increased to effectively run elections in this county the most effective way.”

Though Commissioner Bearden declared that mail-in voting was “unsafe” or lacking in security, the Republican Party of Florida is currently pushing its members to register for mail-in ballots. The county’s own Republican Executive Committee shared a post on its Facebook page a day before Bearden’s comments during Tuesday’s meeting, encouraging county Republicans to request mail-in ballots.

“You’re at three (million),” said Van Ostenbridge, “and with an $800,000 increase, that would bring you close to $4 million.”

“Yes, Sir,” confirmed Satcher.

Van Ostenbridge told Satcher he understood the need for the requested budget increase and pointed out that Gov. Ron DeSantis selected Satcher to be SOE over Scott Farrington—the former Chief of Staff under the previous elections supervisor.

“After evaluating the office,” Van Ostenbridge opined, “the governor decided to go in a different direction and decided not to continue with the status quo.”

Van Ostenbridge asserted that the increase in funds that was requested by Satcher was to “implement changes that the secretary of state and the governor are in line with.” Satcher again confirmed Van Ostenbridge’s statements as accurate.

After hearing from his colleagues on the matter, Kruse followed up on some of his previous concerns while also responding to some points raised during the item discussion. As Satcher began to speak in response to Kruse’s final comments, Van Ostenbridge interrupted Satcher and called the item “to question,” effectively shutting down any further discussion and moving the item to a vote.

Before the vote, three citizens who had attended the meeting in person provided public comments speaking against approval. The residents encouraged the commission to defer any decisions related to the SOE budget until more detailed information about the request was available.

One citizen referenced her 20-year participation in local elections as well as her years of volunteering as a poll worker throughout the county and told commissioners that in “all her years” of service, she had “never seen any issues” in local elections or with casting her own ballot.

In the end, the majority carried the budget amendment approval. Commissioners Kevin Van Ostenbridge, Mike Rahn, Ray Turner, and Jason Bearden voted in support, and George Kruse voted against approval. Commissioner Amanda Ballard abstained from the vote because her husband was recently hired by Satcher as Chief of Staff at the Supervisor of Elections office.

Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter and investigative journalist for The Bradenton Times covering local government news. She can be reached at dawn.kitterman@thebradentontimes.com.