Opinion

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.

13 COMMENTS

  1. To me it’s about doing the right thing on this issue. First of all Anderson almost killed a person and left the scene of an accident. Second he never fulfilled his contract with the city, if we continue to let people get away with stuff like this, we’re no better than them. This was a case the city could have won. I would have been proud to use my tax dollars to fight Anderson so other people that try to take advantage of our city knows we will prosecute.

  2. As well as I remember, when this accident happened and the city learned of it, they wouldn’t let Richard honor and fulfill his contract. That is why he didn’t fulfill his contract, plus the city sued him. Anyone can sit back and judge, but the accident was not intentional, nor caused by malice. We may never know what caused the accident with certainty, but I, for one, am thankful that neither man was killed.

  3. Are you kidding Mama Mia? He left the scene of an accident he was involved in. He was a licensed paramedic and offered no help to an injured party. Instead, he made calls to protect himself and fled the scene. Yes, we can sit in judgment of his actions. While the accident wasn’t intentional, his decision to leave the scene of the accident was. I agree with Gene on this.

  4. Mamma Mia you must be a democrat, I stand with Mr. Knight, where do I plop down my money to fight that S.O.B.

    • Yes, I am a Democrat, and a proud Democrat, who along with my party have plans to make America, America again, and take back our country from that rogue, outlaw/liar, crook/con-man who is ruining our country. Funny, that you would bring up partisanship into an issue totally unrelated to this article, oh well…….if you feel so strongly about defending the city against lawsuits, you could always start a go-fund me for the COA’s legal defense fund, if you are serious, but I think throwing your cash into a collective pot to fight against Mr. Anderson would be fruitless, as the city council’s majority vote cast settled that case.

  5. Mama Mia is Wrong Again! (waterboy movie reference)

    Richard sucked all the money he could out of Apopka. Selling property back to the city for big profits…conflict of interest…you think? Buying post-hurricane generators for him and his cronies using city funds. Highly paid lobbyist who never lobbied a thing for the city. When asked in a council meeting why he hasn’t done a thing he replies, well you never asked. The nerve of this guy.

    While Mayor Land was in his last couple terms, Richard saw dollar signs and took full advantage of a detached mayor. Now he’s sitting on a pile of cash, two city pensions and a $60,000 payday. I can hear him laughing all the way to the bank.

    I would not at all be surprised if he’s still pulling some strings at the city administration office.

    • Average Joe, I have no idea what in the world you are posting about regarding Richard selling property back to the city for big profits……and conflict of interest? I am at a lost to what you mean. It is my understanding that properties bought or sold, in the city’s interest, have to be voted on and confirmed via city council vote. I don’t remember anything tied to Richard’s name, regarding generator purchases during the hurricane seasons of the past, I think you got the wrong guy. It is my understanding Richard is the one who helped to get Taurus to invest into the city center development, so he must of done something “lobbying” and the city council approved it. As Mayor Land grew older, and his health suffered somewhat, he was far from a “detached” mayor, and he leaned on Richard more and more, and depended on him. Richard didn’t take advantage of Mayor Land, because Mayor Land thought highly of Richard, and trusted him totally. I doubt Richard is laughing all the way to the bank, as you assume, IMO, he is probably relieved, and thankful for surviving this traumatic life event and all the aftermath that followed.

  6. Anderson is part of the old mayor’s boys. I do think Mayor land did great things for the city. But was in office way to long. Anderson took an oath as a Firefighter to protect and help. Leaving an injured person and running like a coward is a disgrace. As a retired 30yr Firefighter his behavior is unacceptable.

  7. Mama Mia, I noticed you never address those points made by Mariah McCullough and Wayne. So leaving the scene of an accident with great bodily injury is no big deal to you? Not to mention he had the skill set to help and CHOSE not to…..sounds like a real stand-up guy to me!

    • Cindy….. As I stated before, anyone can sit back and judge. I wasn’t at the accident scene, as the “fly on the wall”, and I don’t know all the facts about the case, and the circumstances, so I won’t judge Richard’s actions, sorry to disappoint you all. I am not certain, if it were me in a horrible head-on crash like that, going over 50 miles an hour, (I’m guessing) that I could make great on- the- spot decisions, after crawling out of the wreckage…. also, I am not clear on Florida’s laws regarding liabilities and duty to rescue, as the laws vary from to state, and are about as clear as mud to me, but I do believe a rescuer, even a paramedic, can be sued for rendering help, and I believe, there are other liabilities, if not acting in that official capacity from an employer. I believe, but am not sure, his employment with the city as a lobbyist was a contractual one, not as a standard employee, so to call him a coward, seems very judgmental, without considering other circumstances involved in being a paramedic, and for him just in a head-on crash. For a long time, I didn’t even know the difference in an EMT and a paramedic, so why in the world, my opinion of his not rendering aid, is of soooo much importance to you all, is beyond belief to me. I have posted in the past, here on the Apopka Voice, of a case of a registered nurse, that was a vendor at a local flea market around here, that when called upon for help to render aid to an older lady that fell out, and was having a heart attack, lying on the gravel road, on her back….. she refused to render aid, and it took the first responders so long to get there, to the scene, and later, I learned the lady died. Did I think it was right?….No, I didn’t, I was really shocked that a registered nurse wouldn’t help the lady, but people have there reasons, and I don’t think there is a law that says they have to render aid…..oath, or not. IMO, a lot of Apopka citizens are mad more about Richard’s high salary, as a former city administrator, and then his high salary as a lobbyist/special project manager, offered to him by Mayor K, and I believe they are transferring their anger about that, and the ongoing politics of this politically divided city, into anger about the settlement money, and about Lake County prosecutors not taking the case to trial against Richard. Ok? So now what do you all want to argue about?

  8. Just glad it is over , stop slandering the dead, mayor Land was a great Man and leader, let it go. We now have another good man who loves this city, as Mayor, let him and the City council do their jobs,

  9. Mama Mia, when you have the opportunity to help someone in need, I think it’s a question of morality – not legality. I realize that one can sit back and think of their own self interest first and choose not to render aid – legally. But, as a spiritual person, I believe it is in those moments in life that someone’s true character is revealed.

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