A Florida county commissioner is facing growing calls to resign over her ‘disgusting abuse of power’ after she created a ‘VIP list’ of vaccine recipients from two wealthy zip codes – and also added herself to the exclusive list.
After the state had targeted an area with a large number of over 65s for where it wanted to open a vaccine site, Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, a Republican, decided only two zip codes within the area would be eligible for vaccines at the site.
The zip codes, 34202 and 34211, are some of the wealthiest in Florida. Under the county’s rules, the vaccine recipients should have been chosen at random.
Baugh admitted she directed staff to give the 3,000-per-day vaccine doses to residents aged 65 and over only if they came from the two affluent zip codes during the exclusive three-day pop-up vaccination at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch.
She also bumped herself, Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen, Jensen’s father and two of her former neighbors onto the list, WFLA reported.
The scandal comes as the remaining roughly 110,000 Manatee County residents aged 65 and over must wait on standby to be randomly selected for the vaccine under the county’s lottery system.
Despite the growing outrage on the violation of the county’s vaccine allocation process, the Manatee County Commission voted Tuesday not to remove Baugh from the commission.
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh (pictured) is facing growing calls to resign over her ‘disgusting abuse of power’ after she created a ‘VIP list’ of vaccine recipients from two wealthy zip codes – and also added herself to the exclusive list
Local residents and the Manatee County Democratic party are demanding Baugh stand down from her role in setting up the state-run site that many have slammed for its ‘favoritism’.
Manatee County Democratic Party’s Tracy Pratt said Baugh had ‘betrayed’ voters by sidelining the system put in place to create equal opportunities to get the vaccine.
‘Vanessa Baugh is an elected official who has betrayed the trust as a voters by creating a pay to play VIP system that benefits her and a select few in the community,’ Pratt said, according to WFLA.
Congressman Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida who is now a Democrat, also wrote a letter to the Department of Justice calling for an investigation into Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ selection of locations for vaccine sites, saying sites had been chosen for political motives.
‘He brings 3,000 vaccines to Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County, an affluent community and a lovely community quite frankly and says, you know, we are going to give 3,000 vaccines to the people in this community and nobody else in Manatee County can get them; nobody in the inner city, nobody in the brown or black communities,’ he said.
‘This is mostly a white, affluent, Republican community I should add.’
The county’s wait list is supposed to randomly select residents for a vaccine, according to WFLA, but a public records request revealed that Baugh had manipulated the list to choose only people from those two zip codes.
A group of around 30 protesters descended on the Manatee County administration building Tuesday morning holding aloft signs reading ‘lock her up’ and demanding Baugh stand down with immediate effect.
A Change.org petition calling for Baugh’s resignation had also reached almost 600 signatures Tuesday.
One protest organizer called her actions a ‘disgusting abuse of power’ and called her apology ‘deeply disappointing.’
Baugh worked with the state to open the exclusive three-day pop-up vaccination site at the Premier Sports Campus (above) in Lakewood Ranch for residents living in the 34202 and 34211 zip codes
Baugh admitted she directed staff to give the 3,000 per day vaccine doses only to residents aged 65 and over in the two affluent zip codes, which cover some of the richest neighborhoods in Florida
‘Honestly, what she said was deeply disappointing and was not an apology,’ Robyne Richardson told the Brandenton Herald.
‘She apologized to the people who received blow back from her actions and said she would do the same thing again. That is not an apology.’
Richardson called for Baugh to resign or be removed from her role as chairwoman if she didn’t.
‘I believe she doesn’t believe she did anything wrong. Nor do I believe she cares,’ Richardson said.
The commission voted 4-3 against the motion to remove Baugh as chairwoman in a public meeting Tuesday morning in the wake of the backlash.
Republican Commissioners James Satcher, Kevin Van Ostenbridge and George Kruse joined Baugh in declining to remove her, claiming it would cause further division on the board, reported the Bradenton Herald.
Van Ostenbridge said in the meeting that Baugh ‘made a terrible mistake’ by ‘compromis[ing] the fairness of the lottery system’ but that she had apologized.
‘Commissioner Baugh made a terrible mistake. She compromised the fairness of the lottery system,’ said Van Ostenbridge.
‘The fundamental point of that system was to avoid favoritism and that’s exactly what happened when people were hand-selected in certain zip codes. She’s apologized and accepted responsibility for her actions. She has to answer to her constituents.’
Gov. DeSantis (at the site last week) has come under fire for the choice of location of the state-run site
He added that the steps to remove her was ‘an effort to make this hyper-partisan and polarize what’s happening.’
Commissioners Reggie Bellamy, a Democrat, and Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore, Republicans, voted in favor of her removal.
Bellamy had urged Baugh’s conservative allies to break rank and remove her in order to ‘not just to be loyal to the individuals that sit to the left and right of you, but to be loyal to the individuals that voted you in.’
Whitmore added that the board had ‘lost our credibility’ because of Baugh’s actions.
‘I don’t think it’s going to pass and if it doesn’t, I hope this community raises heck,’ she said.
Baugh faced a backlash after emails obtained by WFLA via public records request revealed she had directed staff to manipulate the database on vaccine allocation.
The Department of Health in Manatee County has a wait list program for the vaccine that randomly selects eligible residents – full- or part-time Florida residents aged 65 and older – from a standby pool.
It emerged Baugh had sidelined this lottery system for the Lakewood Ranch site to pull only residents from the two zip codes.
The site, which DeSantis visited last week, was giving out around 3,000 shots a day during its three-day pop-up.
Baugh also added five VIPs not included in this group she deemed eligible including herself to receive the shots, emails showed.
When her ploy was rumbled, Baugh fired back that it was a ‘great idea’.
‘I will tell you that personally, yes, I would help do it again anywhere in Manatee County if we could get more vaccine.
‘To me, that is what is important here — the number of vaccines that are coming into Manatee County. Did I even stop to think that this board and others would be upset over it? No, to be honest, I thought it was a great idea,’ Baugh said last Tuesday.
Two days later, Baugh apologized and admitted she did fix the list.
‘I want to apologize to all the residents I have disappointed, according to some news outlets,’ Baugh said at a public meeting Thursday.
‘It is true that I sent the email because I wanted to make sure certain people were on the list.’
She also apologized to the governor before adding that she ‘did exactly what he wanted.’
‘I also, again, want to apologize to Gov. DeSantis,’ said Baugh.
‘And I don’t do that because I feel that I’m putting him in jeopardy because of Lakewood Ranch. I did exactly what he wanted. And I’m thankful for that.’
DeSantis tried to distance himself from the scandal telling reporters last week ‘you’ll have to ask them why they do it.’
The governor came under fire last week over the choice of the vaccination pop-up as he reportedly picked the Lakewood Ranch location.
According to state data, Lakewood Ranch is one of the richest neighborhoods in Florida with an average household income in the 34202 zip code of $136,423 and $132,357 in the 34211 zip code.
The neighborhood is also associated with heavy Republican donors.
DeSantis claimed the area was chosen because it had a high elderly population.
‘We wanted to find communities that have high levels of seniors living in there, and this obviously has a high concentration,’ he said.
‘You look at all these different communities, and there is a lot of senior citizens. If there were few senior citizens, then you wouldn’t have set up a pod here.’
However the two zip codes do not have more seniors or more virus cases than many neighboring zip codes.
The nearby zip code of 34205 has more seniors and more COVID-19 cases per capita, reported WFLA.
This isn’t the first time DeSantis has come under fire for giving special vaccine access to Florida’s white, wealthy residents.
Earlier this month Tampa Bay church leaders called for better vaccine outreach to communities of color, referencing state data that showed that more than 85,000 black people had been vaccinated compared to 1.1 million white people.
Rev Dr Wayne Thompson from First Institutional Baptist Church in St Pete told WFLA at the time: ‘We know we are not asking to get in front of anyone. We just want to have our fair share our equal access to it and get our people vaccinated.’