By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
At the tail end of the Apopka City Council meeting last week, City Attorney Joseph K. Byrd presented a last-minute offer by former Apopka Chief Administrator Richard Anderson to settle a lawsuit for $60,000. The Council voted 3-2 to accept the settlement, which reversed a decision they made in 2017 to refuse that same amount.
And thus ended one of the darkest chapters in Apopka history – hopefully.
It’s been a little over three years since Anderson’s Dodge Ram crossed the center line on SR46 in Lake County and crashed head-on into Michael Falcon’s Toyota, severely injuring Falcon, and taking the city and community of Apopka down a very dark path in the process.
But that path may have ended in the Council Chambers on Wednesday with an unexpected windfall for Anderson.
After being arrested and charged with Leaving the Scene with Serious Bodily Injury, Reckless Driving with Serious Bodily Injury, Tampering with Physical Evidence, Leaving the Scene with Property Damage, and Reckless Driving with Property Damage, Anderson avoided a prison sentence when Lake County prosecutors were unable to prove he was behind the wheel of the vehicle he owned that crashed into Falcon, who suffered a concussion, punctured lung, fractured sternum, three herniated discs, a broken hand, and broken wrists. Despite being seen by multiple witnesses at the scene of the crash making phone calls, the prosecutors chose not to take the case to trial.
Anderson pled no contest to leaving the scene of an accident with serious bodily injury and was sentenced to probation. He may also avoid a felony record because the judge withheld adjudication.
The City of Apopka sued Anderson for $166,000, alleging he breached a personal-services contract with the city by failing to advise city officials of the collision, thus putting the city into a bad light, and for failing to fulfill his contract. Anderson counter-sued, and three years later, is poised to claim victory in his suit against the City.
In 2017, the City Council voted against a settlement in which it would pay Anderson $60,000 and drop its claim. But at the City Council meeting on Wednesday, it reversed its decision – voting 3-2 in favor of ending the lawsuit under the same terms as 2017.
The split decision mirrored the mixed opinions of the City Council, as well as Cliff Shepard.
“This settlement would bring to an end what has been a long chapter in the city’s history,” said Shepard, the former Apopka City Attorney who is still lead counsel on this lawsuit. “But as you all know, or at least some of you who were here before, there were reasons previously the Council was not amenable to the settlement. Those reasons may have changed because of time, or wanting to put things behind them… so I don’t judge the offer except to say it is the same offer as 2017 based on the mediation. In terms of downside, there are none except we don’t get money back, and we have to pay out money. In terms of what could happen if we go to trial – it’s a good case for us, but also one in which if we win, there’s no guarantee we would ever collect from Mr. Anderson. Those are the same facts that were true in 2017 as well.”
Commissioners Alice Nolan and Alexander H. Smith, neither of whom were on the Council in 2017, voted in favor of the settlement. Smith, who made the successful motion to accept the settlement, had no comment about the lawsuit during the discussion. Nolan, however, had plenty of thoughts.
“Personally I’d like to stop the bleeding on this,” she said. “This has drawn out for a very long time, but I’m willing to hear what the rest of the Council has to say.”
Commissioner Doug Bankson, who voted to accept the mediated settlement in 2017, was also for accepting of it this time.
“I think we spent $70,000 on this case, and then if we settle it will be another chunk. But it will be less than if we go forward… unless we win. The problem is we probably won’t see a cent of that even if we do win. I guess for me I really want to get away from the personal politics of this thing and just do what’s best for the people of this city and be able to move forward. I’m ready to go forward as a City.”
Commissioner Kyle Becker voted against the settlement in 2017 on the basis of principle, and those principles did not change two years later.
“I don’t know Mr. Anderson. I may have shaken his hand or said hello to him but not to a degree where I can talk about his personal character. I’m not intending to do that here. But to me, there’s a strong ability to state the merits of our case… and it’s hard for me to get behind any sort of settlement when I know people say it’s $70,000 vs. $60,000, but when you look at it from those terms, we’re paying $60,000 for work that wasn’t done versus work that will be done in a legal standpoint to protect our city.”
In 2017, Becker had a similar response to the settlement offer by Anderson.
“My litmus test, the first thing I’m asking myself is right versus wrong. For that reason, I’m willing to risk dollars if it means we’re doing the right thing to protect the integrity of the people of this town who entrust people like Mr. Anderson. That’s where my stance is and I really don’t think I’m budging on this one.”
Mayor Bryan Nelson had a novel response to the settlement; basically recusing himself because the offer did not make it onto the agenda by Friday. Nelson voted no on that basis but encouraged the Council to vote in favor of the offer.
“I pride myself on transparency. If I had this on Friday I’d feel really comfortable voting for it, but I can’t. If we could put this off two weeks I’d be more than comfortable doing it, but I’m saying if you want to vote for it, I’m perfectly fine with that. It’s not about the dollars, it’s a process for me. I know our attorney doesn’t like the reason I’m standing down on this, but it’s not about the amount. It’s not about Richard Anderson. It’s about the process for me, but if you out vote me that would be great.”
Before the final vote, Becker asked about a clause that would not allow Anderson to work for the City of Apopka. Shepard said that clause was removed from this offer and that a non-disparagement clause was added. The Council chose to put the non-employment clause back into the settlement, which makes their vote a counter offer that Anderson could reject.
“Our citizens are asking for recreational stuff. They’re asking for more things with AFD and APD (Apopka Fire and Police Departments),” Nolan added. “I just feel like that money could be used over there rather than who was right or who was wrong. It’s obvious who was right and who was wrong. The public knows and we know.”
Bankson was also concerned that rushing the process might be perceived incorrectly by Apopka residents, but felt closing the book on this case took priority.
“I think it’s important that we are perceived correctly. What makes me uncomfortable is that we haven’t had the chance before the public to show that this is something based on the merits and the judgment of what seems to be the best way to go forward for the people. It’s based upon the merits that I’m ready to vote.”
Despite a diversity of opinions, it’s hard to disagree with any of the wisdom verbalized by the City Council. Who wouldn’t want to end the ugliness? Who wouldn’t want to pay the small settlement and not risk losing additional attorney fees so that the City can increase fire, police, and recreational budgets?
But at the end of the day, the City of Apopka paid a person $60,000 who left the scene of a nearly fatal crash, and despite making multiple phone calls shortly after the incident, did not inform his employer. Apopka paid a person who took money to do a job as a consultant and lobbyist but didn’t take the time to register as one.
It was hard to make that case in 2017. It’s hard to make that case based on a rushed settlement offer the day of the City Council meeting. And it would be hard to make that case if the Council had followed Nelson’s lead and deferred it until it could officially make the agenda at the following City Council meeting on May 15th – especially when your attorney still believes you have a good chance at success.
As Becker said ‘there is a litmus test of right versus wrong’. As Nolan said ‘we know who was right and who was wrong’.
Sometimes it’s just that simple. You fight for what is right. You fight for the Michael Falcons of the world. You fight for the city workers who do a job and get their wage – most likely under $60,000. You fight even though you are using taxpayer money to do so. Perhaps you fight BECAUSE you are using taxpayer money to do so.
A victorious lawsuit would not repair the damage done, and it would not dramatically affect the next budget win or lose, but at least it would put the City on the right side of the issue.