Opinion/Analysis

By Reggie Connell/ Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice

There are many elements to being a good leader… particularly an elected leader. Confidence, decisiveness, and excellent communication are among the skills that are important, but at the foundation of effective leadership is trust.

I know in this age of politics that may seem naive or sound like the platitudes of an inspirational speech, but there is simply no alternative to being trustworthy. Whether you are the middle manager of a small company, coach of a little league team, CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or mayor of a midsize city, your word has to be your bond.

It’s hard to govern well or lead without this quality.

Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson rode into office last year with a clear mandate of fiscal responsibility, budget management, honesty, and transparency. His plain-spoken appeal definitely resonated with Apopka voters, and he won with 63% of the vote, which was the largest margin of victory in an Apopka election since 2008. They knew him, they liked him, and they trusted him.

But campaigning and governing are two entirely different things.

During the term of almost every elected official, there comes a day when they are challenged with a difficult event that displays their resolve and shows how they lead under pressure. It can be their defining moment and propel them to greatness, or it can damage or even end their political careers.

In Nelson’s case, that event took place early in his term, and it didn’t go well by any measure. It involved the Apopka Fire Department, and its chief Chuck Carnesale.

Shortly after Nelson’s swearing-in, there were employees at the AFD that had serious issues with many of Carnesale’s actions and sent a deputy fire chief to City Administrator Edward Bass to make their allegations known.

It was at this moment that things got murky.

In the narrative of his investigation, City Attorney Joseph Byrd describes their allegations like this:

“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. 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.”

But instead of investigating the allegations aimed at Carnesale and either proving or refuting them, Bass decided to focus his attention on the EMS vendor, and the time record of Carnesale’s secretary, while stating the other allegations weren’t written down.

Bass did not respond to an email from The Apopka Voice that asked if he did not investigate Thompson’s allegations solely because they were not put in writing, but it’s hard to imagine that was the lone factor in his decision, given he acted on other allegations which were also a part of those grievances.

The report also states that Nelson was made aware of the allegations leveled by Thompson shortly after they were received by Bass, and because of those and management decisions made by Carnesale that Nelson believed were not beneficial to the city, he decided to replace him.

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.”

Nelson could have been straight with Carnesale, told him of his intention to replace him, stated the causes, and still given Carnesale the option to retire. Instead, he appears to have taken a more secretive approach that included taking the initial steps to choose a successor.

As reported in The Apopka Voice on July 26, 2019:

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.

Nelson also began 2019 by inviting Wylam to meetings that involved the 2019-20 fiscal budget and excluded Carnesale.

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 investigation runs counter to reports from anonymous sources that told The Apopka Voice Carnesale was shocked by their intent to replace him as fire chief.

As reported in The Apopka Voice on July 26, 2019:

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.”

After Nelson’s meeting with Carnesale, details of his intention to replace the fire chief began to emerge on local social media sites, and in many cases, those details were accurate. But according to Byrd’s report, there was one element that no one was aware of. After describing the negotiations between the administration and Carnesale as interactive with both sides offering options, a surprising turn of events took place – an agreement was reached to keep Carnesale on as fire chief. Nelson had apparently changed his mind.

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 that April 17th City Council meeting, Nelson did deny that he would replace Carnesale as the report states, but was not forthcoming about his 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.”

If the report is accurate, Nelson’s claim that he wasn’t going to fire Carnesale was technically true, but it wasn’t the whole story. Either way, it was certainly more than a social media rumor. This was another opportunity for Nelson and the administration to be forthcoming with a difficult issue, but unfortunately, they missed the mark.

At every juncture, the administration appears to have chosen secrecy and silence over transparency and honesty. However, let’s be fair, this is not the first administration to withhold parts of a difficult story.

President John F. Kennedy had his Bay of Pigs. Franklin Roosevelt forced American citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps during World War II. Ronald Reagan had an Iran-Contra scandal. None of these presidents were exactly forthcoming about any of those issues, yet all three went on to be considered great presidents.

Certainly, a mayor’s team should be made up of the leaders he wants. All department heads work at the pleasure of the administration. But a transition of fire chiefs should be out in the open, not through covert actions, whispering campaigns, forced retirements, or misleading public comments.

It was not fair for Chief Carnesale to absorb those allegations week-after-week, followed by denials and non-comments by the administration.

If the report is to be taken as an accurate account of the events leading up to an investigation of the Apopka Fire Department, then Nelson knew by the fall of 2018 that he intended to replace Carnesale. And judging by his actions both in December and into the budget meetings of early 2019, he knew Deputy Fire Chief Sean Wylam would be his replacement.

With that in mind, the best course of action would have been to be truthful and forthcoming with the details of this difficult transition, and to make a clean break in 2018 instead of putting city hall, the administration, the Apopka Fire Department, Carnesale, and the residents of Apopka through the drama that was the last six months.

Honesty and transparency can go a long way in leading this great city.

* * * * *

Parting Thoughts:

Consider this final part to the series a critique of the actions the administration took on this issue, not a personal criticism against Nelson or his staff. It’s the role of journalists to report the news accurately, objectively and occasionally to offer opinion and analysis on that news – whether it be good or bad. That role is even more important in a small city like Apopka where independent news sites and publications may be the only media outlets holding elected officials accountable.

Corrections, Clarifications, and Explanations

  • Apopka City Attorney Joseph Byrd contacted The Apopka Voice after the release of his investigation to clarify the reasons why members of the administration may not be responding to questions from The Apopka Voice.

 “As you will note by the email sent below (this is a forwarded email), the Mayor, Commissioners, Mr. Bass and I are bound to the non-disparagement provision in Chief Carnesale’s separation agreement.  None of these individuals are avoiding making a comment for any other reason to my knowledge. You may also note that the email below is that of which Commissioner Bankson and Mayor Nelson referred at last week’s Council meeting and explains the underlying issue in my comments at the Council meeting on September 11, 2019, regarding the report.” 

Here is the referenced email from Byrd to the City Council:

“Additionally, please note that part of Chief Carnesale’s decision to retire included his attorney negotiating a separation agreement, a copy of that Agreement is attached for your reference.  A standard part of these types of Agreements is a “non-disparagement” clause (see section 9 of the Agreement) wherein the parties agree not to make disparaging comments about one another.  The investigation report is specifically excepted from the provision of section 9 but comments about it or reading publicly from it are not.  I would advise that to avoid violating the Agreement, no comment should be made about the report.”

  • In two articles published by The Apopka Voice, Chief Carnesale’s employee evaluations were referenced, but it was not made clear that Glenn Irby, the previous city administrator during Mayor Joe Kilsheimer’s term in office, was the person who wrote the evaluation. Those two articles now include the reference to Irby being the author of the evaluation.
  • Two sources, one inside city hall, and one with knowledge of the subject, speaking on the condition of anonymity, pointed out that the negotiations with Orange County regarding Station 29 originated with an original proposal that Mayor Nelson was not pleased with, and was then negotiated into an agreement he was able to sign off on. A public records request from Orange County for original documents confirmed this assertion. An article published by The Apopka Voice did not make those additional details clear but have now been added.

Off the record and anonymous sources

Before this series of articles about the AFD dating back to April, The Apopka Voice had quoted three unnamed sources in two articles over the course of our almost four-year history. That’s two out of over 6,200 articles published, which means it’s a rarity, but still, a carefully utilized tool that gets to the truth.

And in all three cases, the source’s honesty and credibility were proven-out as more details came to light.

But in this series of articles, we used multiple anonymous and unnamed sources both off the record and on background. In going off the record with these sources, the information they gave was always confirmed with other “on the record” subjects or by supporting documents. These off the record conversations were like a fact-finding road map. We used their information to get to the truth as opposed to taking their word for it without confirmation.

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