Public comments at the Apopka City Council meetings have typically been one-sided events, with the speaker making their statement and the mayor saying “thank you” as they leave the microphone a couple of minutes later. Occasionally there is an interaction between the speaker and the Council but rarely is there debate, disagreement or any sort of controversy.
But at Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, that trend changed amidst the tension that has engaged Apopka for the past several months.
Mariah McCullough, a vocal critic of this administration on many social media sites, was the second speaker during public comments. McCullough, a lifetime resident of Apopka and the city’s former recreation director, took exception to the events relating to the investigation of the Apopka Fire Department and to the events related to its former Chief Chuck Carnesale.
She read from a prepared 529-word statement which was critical of the administration, City Attorney Joseph Byrd, and Commissioner Alice Nolan.
“Good evening, Mayor and Commissioners. I come before you tonight to express my concerns regarding the handling of the Fire Department investigation, the admonishments of Commissioner Becker during the last Council meeting, and commissioner involvement in Fire Department operations.
It became clear while reviewing the Apopka Fire Department investigation documents, that the City Attorney continuously asked leading questions of witnesses during interviews; appeared to give testimony with his own questions; left assertions made by witnesses unchecked, essentially accepting all accusations as true; and failed to follow up with or interview involved parties explicitly named by witnesses. The city attorney revealed a clear bias in the execution of his “investigation” towards the outcome the administration was seeking.
This was further made clear during last week’s Council meeting when Commissioner Becker questioned the investigation and was shut down and publicly admonished by the city attorney for referencing the investigation findings.
Commissioner Becker was elected by Apopka residents, including myself, to speak and make decisions on our behalf. It is offensive and reprehensible for the city attorney to publicly admonish and interrupt Commissioner Becker because he referenced a PUBLIC document that was relevant and critical to the decision he was being asked to make.
According to the section of the Government in the Sunshine manual referencing Attorney Notes and the caselaw noted therein, “documents prepared to communicate, perpetuate or formalize knowledge constitute public records and are therefore subject to disclosure in the absence of statutory exemption.” Once the city attorney provided a copy of the report to the Commissioners—if not sooner—it became public record and therefore wholly appropriate for Commissioner Becker to reference.
It’s suspicious and does not look good that the report was provided to the council just prior to the meeting where they were being asked to ratify the Mayor’s recommendation for Chief, especially considering all allegations were either inconclusive or unfounded.
I appreciate Commissioner Becker’s initiative and wherewithal to request for a delay in the vote and I encourage all commissioners to exercise the same good judgment and initiative if necessary, in the future.
It has been publicly reported, well-documented, admitted, and confirmed that a sitting commissioner gave orders to and dictated the removal of Chief Carnesale. This is in direct violation of Section 2.06 of the City Charter.
The citizens of Apopka are owed an explanation as to why this commissioner felt it was appropriate or legal to become involved in the operations of the fire department; what specific competencies, certifications, education or experience this Commissioner possesses to qualify them to assess and dictate the operations and leadership appointments of an ISO-1 Fire Department; and who, specifically, was this commissioner collaborating with on a staff-level or otherwise, referenced in communications as “we” and “us.”
Clearly, this commissioner did not seek out on a rogue mission to transform fire department leadership.
Finally, Section 2.04(d) of the City charter entrusts enforcement of the provisions of the Charter to the Mayor. Mr. Mayor, until you act, the citizens of Apopka are left to wonder why nothing is being done. The longer it takes you to act, the longer the public will be left to draw its own conclusions.
McCullough turned to walk back to her seat when Nolan chose to respond.