By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
On September 18th, the City Council ratified the appointment of Sean Wylam as Fire Chief of the Apopka Fire Department after the retirement of former fire chief Chuck Carnesale. The week before that, City Attorney Joseph Byrd concluded his investigation into wrongdoing at the Apopka Fire Department, and found all allegations made against Carnesale to be either inconclusive or unfounded.
And with the investigation completed, Carnesale retired, and a new fire chief installed, that should close the book on one of the uglier chapters in Apopka’s history.
But has this truly been resolved?
In a three-part series entitled “Anatomy of an investigation: The case that rocked the Apopka Fire Department”, The Apopka Voice will analyze each aspect of this investigation – from the events and actions that led to it, the allegations, the evidence of those allegations, and the conclusions drawn from that evidence.
In part one, entitled “How did we get here?”, we analyze and report on the events leading up to the three-month long investigation and attempt to understand how a beloved 37-year veteran of the Apopka Fire Department that worked his way up the ranks to become its fire chief concluded his career by being the target of an investigation, and ultimately retiring only two days after announcing it, and before the investigation concluded. The Apopka Voice analyzes the report’s narrative, written by Byrd, that includes some surprising assertions made by Byrd, City Administrator Edward Bass, and Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson.
* * * * *
Part One: How did we get here?
For newly elected officials, there is often a brief time at the start of their terms called “the honeymoon period”. During this time, negativity subsides, approval ratings rise, and the residents of a municipality view their new leader with optimism and happy thoughts – grateful to be past another tough election cycle.
For Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, that honeymoon period came in the spring of 2018. Fresh off an historic victory in the 2018 Apopka Mayoral race in which he received 63% of the vote, Nelson sailed into the budget season optimistically looking at blue skies ahead. But by summer the summer months, the heat from a controversy brewing at the Apopka Fire Department had made its way to city hall.
Nelson’s honeymoon period was about to end.
According to Apopka City Attorney Joseph Byrd’s report, AFD Deputy Fire Chief Ray Thompson verbalized complaints from members of the AFD against Chief Chuck Carnesale. In Byrd’s investigation into these complaints, he writes:
“Around or about April 2018, Mayor Bryan Nelson was elected to office. Some months after this time, various staff members brought allegations of misconduct against Chief Carnesale through the chain of command to Deputy Chief Ray Thompson. In the summer and fall of 2018, Deputy Chief Thompson orally reported some of these allegations to the City Administrator, Edward Bass.”
The report continues, describing a chain of command at city hall that included actions taken by the Human Resources Department, the city administrator, and even the mayor.
A verbal allegation vs. a written allegation?
In the report, Byrd writes:
“Mr. Bass and Human Resources Manager Tangela Whaley addressed one allegation related to Carol Zimmerman, an hourly employee of the AFD serving as a secretary to Chief Carnesale falsifying her time records. Mr. Bass also attempted to resolve allegations related to the NEB Group, Inc., the AFD’s EMS billing company. Mr. Bass did not directly address the remaining allegations as they were not put in writing.”
Bass did not respond to an email from The Apopka Voice that asked if he did in fact not respond to Thompson’s allegations solely because they were not put in writing.
Issues with the Orange County Fire Station 29 deal?
According to the report, Nelson was made aware of the verbal allegations leveled by Thompson later in 2018, but he had other concerns with Carnesale that were not related to those allegations. It was at this point in 2018 that Nelson decided to replace him as fire chief.
In the report, Byrd writes:
“Mayor Nelson determined that in addition to the oral allegations brought to the City Administrator’s Office, certain management decisions by Chief Carnesale that were costly to the City (such as poor management of overtime pay and a poorly negotiated agreement with Orange County regarding services to Station 29) were sufficient to require a transition in the Fire Chief’s position, particularly since with nearly 30 years of service he was “in the drop” and near retirement.”
But if Nelson had issues with the Orange County Fire Station 29 deal, he did not make them known. At the August 15th, 2018 City Council meeting, Carnesale presented the agreement to the City Council, but it was after a three-year process that included an outside firm’s endorsement, and the backing of city staff, staff from Orange County, the Orange County fire chief, and Carnesale. During Carnesale’s 15-minute presentation, Nelson did not ask any questions, show any signs of discontent with the deal, and voted in favor, along with unanimous support from the Council.
Here is the summary released by Apopka city staff in relation to the Fire Station 29 agreement as part of the agenda packet for the August 15th, 2018 City Council meeting:
In February 2015, TriData, a nationally recognized firm specializing in public safety research and consulting, was contracted to conduct a fire station location study for the Orange County Fire Rescue Department. The study analyzed the current deployment of fire stations, and the potential need for additional stations or the relocating of stations to better serve the county. The study reviewed current allocation/ locations of resources, forecast future demands for service in light of expected growth and recommended changes to the current system. The study resulted in the following recommendations of Fire and EMS coverage for Orange County Fire Station 29 located on Kelly Park Road:
1. With recent annexations and the current and projected growth to the north of Apopka and NW Orange County, work with Apopka to provide Fire and EMS coverage and consider a monetary incentive for Apopka.
2. Move forward with negotiations to have Apopka provide service to the area presently served by Station 29 and to provide automatic aid (backup) to areas of unincorporated Orange County where Station 29 would normally respond if needed.
3. Establish a Mutual-Aid agreement with Apopka. With the location of Apopka Fire Station 2 ( Welch Rd.), the recent opening of Fire Station 5 ( Firehouse Lane) and the continued growth/ annexations to the north has caused a reduction of the service area at Orange County Station 29. The Orange County Fire Rescue Department approached the city with a proposal for Apopka to take over fire -rescue services for the area currently serviced by Fire Station 29 located on Kelly Park Road. After several months of negotiations, the Fire Chiefs from both agencies, along with city and county staff, have agreed upon a service area and plan for the Apopka Fire Department to provide coverage of the existing Station 29 area and a means to provide automatic – aid backup) to areas where Station 29 would normally respond.
The fact that Nelson wanted to replace Carnesale as fire chief in 2018 does, however, coincide with reports The Apopka Voice received in which Nelson was already grooming Deputy Chief Sean Wylam as a replacement for Carnesale in December of 2018.
Since he became fire chief in 2016, Carnesale has made it a tradition to visit all six fire stations in Apopka on Thanksgiving and Christmas to deliver a smoked turkey and ham to the units on duty that day.
That tradition, however, was interrupted last Christmas.
On that day, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the visits, Nelson and Deputy Fire Chief Sean Wylam made the rounds to the fire stations instead, without informing Carnesale of their intentions or inviting him to come along.
* * * * *
A separation agreement to reduce a transition plan to writing?
The report also includes details of a negotiation between the administration and Carnesale that took place before March of 2019 and an explanation for the separation agreement that was sent from Byrd to City Administrator Edward Bass in March of 2019.
In the report, Byrd writes:
“In 2019, Chief Carnesale, Mayor Nelson, Edward Bass, and Tangela Whaley began to discuss the manner of the transition. Conversations about his retirement included plans that ranged from months to years, so in late March 2019, the City Attorney, at his sole initiative, provided a draft of a separation agreement to assist City administration and Chief Carnesale to reduce a transition plan to writing. Chief Carnesale provided some options for his retirement in writing as well.”
This part of the report either runs counter to or omits reports from anonymous sources that told The Apopka Voice Carnesale was shocked by their intent to replace him as fire chief.
* * * * *
The reason became apparent to Carnesale at his employee evaluation with Whaley and Bass on January 9th. According to a source with knowledge of the event, and one city employee speaking on the condition of anonymity, Carnesale received his third-straight “excellent” rating as Chief – a perfect score of 60 was confirmed in a public record request of Carnesale’s 2018 evaluation from former City Administrator Glenn Irby. But then Whaley followed the evaluation with this statement:
“We’re going in a different direction (for the fire chief),” Whaley said.
A stunned Carnesale looked to Bass for an understanding of this shocking news, but Bass did not offer any specifics.
“I don’t agree with it,” he said. “But ‘people above me’ want to go in this direction.”
And according to the Apopka City Charter, the only person above the city administrator is the mayor.
According to sources inside city hall speaking on condition of anonymity and multiple sources close to the issue, two to three weeks passed before Nelson met with Carnesale to explain his decision. But Nelson stuck to the same basic message given to Carnesale during the evaluation meeting and did not offer any specifics to the fire chief for his removal.
“We’re just going in a different direction,” said Nelson. “(But) I’ll give you a recommendation for any school or city you want to go to.”
* * * * *
A surprising turn of events in the transition of fire chiefs
After describing the negotiations between the administration and Carnesale as interactive with both sides offering options, a surprising turn of events took place according to the report – an agreement was reached to keep Carnesale on as fire chief.
In the report, it states:
“By mid-April 2019, Chief Carnesale and City Administration determined to attempt a path for Chief Carnesale to remain as Fire Chief wherein he would delegate fiscal management to the Assistant Chief, Sean Wylam. City Administration was satisfactorily convinced that the majority of the allegations were either addressed or were in the process of being addressed. On April 17, 2019, when the questions of terminating Chief Carnesale arose from members of the public in the City Council Meeting, Mayor Nelson noted that Chief Carnesale was not being terminated.”
At the April 17th City Council meeting, Nelson did deny the allegation that he would replace Carnesale as fire chief, but was not forthcoming about the evolving desire to replace Carnesale or to allow him to stay on, but with limited responsibilities. Instead, he focused on one specific allegation he received online.
“I’ve got a former resident of Apopka who went on about me firing the police chief and the fire chief and it’s not true… so I apologize,” Nelson said. “I know Linda (City Clerk Linda Goff) and I have been dealing with this guy and it’s really gotten kind of out of control. I know a lot of you have asked me over the weekend about this, and I had a lady this afternoon tell me that she saw all of this stuff online and she would be worried… scared for your own life. It’s about him losing his wife five years ago. We’ve done testing… water and soil testing for him. But he just goes off on a rant… it seems like nothing helps. He’s off the chain. So I don’t know how to handle it. But social media, it’s the new media that you have to live with. I wanted to give you a little background, but the last two weeks have been a real challenge… But the short answer is he’s not being removed nor is the police chief.”
* * * * *
A whistleblower emerges: Verbal allegations turn to written allegations
After Nelson made the statement at City Council that he was not replacing Carnesale, Thompson followed up on his verbal allegations from 2018 with an official whistleblower email sent to the administration, according to the report.
“On April 25, 2019, after that affirmation (of Carnesale to remain as fire chief), an email from Deputy Chief Ray Thompson was sent to Mayor Nelson, Mr. Bass and to the City Attorney making specific allegations against Chief Carnesale “pursuant to ‘Whistle-Blower Act”. Whereas Ms. Whaley was out of the office for medical reasons and could not perform an investigation and City Administration deemed it improper for subordinate AFD employees to perform an investigation, it was determined that the investigation would be completed by the City Attorney.”
Thompson’s first email, while it does cite other AFD employees, does take responsibility for the validity of the complaints, and does cite whistleblower protection in the email. He also points out that action was not taken when he verbally reported it to Bass in 2018.
“I am in good faith reporting the following specific information that I and other employees have previously reported to you in which appropriate action has not been taken.
- Tampering with test scores
- Coercing employees on-duty into signing a political petition for a specific candidate
- Use of DL photos for discriminatory hiring practices
- Deceptive information presented to City Administration
- Potential misappropriation of funds
- Allowing an “evaluated source 11 vendor who was unlicensed to place the Department and City in great Jeopard
- Partisan favoritism and manipulating department policy to benefit specific employees.
- Allowing the payroll custodian to falsify time records
As you know, there are City employees that can substantiate these allegations. I have placed myself in great peril to protect the City and its residents and I expect the same in return.
I am prepared to present this to the State Attorney’s Office if need be.”
Byrd later asked Thompson for more details in order to move forward with an investigation into Carnesale, according to the report, and based on Thompson’s second email, and testimony from two AFD employees, he felt he had enough to justify an investigation.
In his report, Byrd writes:
“Accordingly, on the afternoon of May 7, 2019, the recorded sworn statements of Vicky Carnicella was taken and on May 16 and 17, 2019, the recorded sworn statement of Captain Wil Sanchez was taken. The sworn statements of Ms. Carnicella and Captain Sanchez corroborated the statement of Deputy Chief Ray Thompson and were determined to be credible to provide probable cause that a full investigation was required.”
In Part Two: Accusations – unfounded and inconclusive
The investigation into wrongdoing at the Apopka Fire Department concluded with Chief Carnesale as the subject. But after three months, 11 interviews, 21 exhibits, and six correrspondences, the 36-page report finds all eight allegations against Carnesale to be either inconclusive or unfounded. Is this because Carnesale was not interviewed, or was there simply not enough evidence to merit any allegations as founded?