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A mercy killing: Council lets vote to rescind Nelson's 2023 censure die on the floor

Smith recuses himself from the vote; Anderson attempts to table the item


Never have two back-to-back non-votes on the Apopka City Council made a more significant statement than at the June 19th meeting. After a contentious 62-minute discussion, the Council did not have the appetite to make a motion to rescind the 2023 censure of Mayor Bryan Nelson or to give Commissioner Nadia Anderson's motion to table the item until the next meeting the "second" it needed to move to a vote.

A censure of an elected official is a formal statement of disapproval or reprimand issued by a legislative body. It is a way for the governing body to express strong disapproval of the official's actions, although it does not result in their removal from office. In Nelson's case, it came with no penalty or punishment.

At the time, I urged him to take the high road, accept the censure, and look ahead to the FY2023/24 budget workshops.

After the censure, Nelson's statement seemed to indicate that he wanted to move forward.

"Ever since that loss for mayor, he’s [Becker] been nothing but just trying to put a stick in the mud rather than trying to put the city forward,” Nelson said. "Do you want to move the city forward, or do you want to keep doing the gotchas? If that’s what you want, I’m here. I’ll take it. I’m a big boy."

So why spend the time, effort, and what little goodwill that was left on Council to revisit a dark piece of Apopka history a year after the fact?

Nelson attempted to couple an item titled "Ethics Complaint and Finding of No Probable Cause" with the censure decision, but that plan had fatal flaws.

According to the staff summary in the agenda packet,

"The (Florida) Commission on Ethics sent a letter dated October 26th, 2023, to Mayor Bryan Nelson that a complaint had been filed against him by Kelley Butcher. The letter explained that the complaint would be preliminarily reviewed by the agency to determine whether the allegations were legally sufficient and whether any possible violations of law had been sufficiently alleged. Attached to the correspondence was a copy of Ms. Butcher's complaint which listed accusations regarding the handling of Attorney Michael Rodriquez's employment status and City's use of resources for the Next Step Foundation. The complaint also included a reference to Mayor Nelson's censure by City Council concerning Attorney Rodriguez's employment status.

The Commission on Ethics met on June 7th, 2024, and adopted the advocate's recommendation of "no probable cause" and dismissed the complaint filed against Mayor Nelson."

The item requested that the City reimburse Nelson for his legal fees of $1,527.50. The Council voted 3-2 in favor (Anderson, Nelson, and Commissioner Alexander Smith in favor), but tying this action to erasing the censure was apparently a bridge too far for its members.

In a wide-ranging statement, Nelson maintained that the censure was from a political rival out to score points and not based on facts:

"I'm asking for my censorship vote from August 2nd 2023, to be removed from the records. The basis of the censorship vote was over the departure of our former City Attorney Michael Rodriguez. I'm bringing this item up because on October 13, the Florida commission on ethics received complaint #23-253 and began an investigation on me including the same issue the censorship was based on. The Ethics Commission investigated all allegations in the complaint and on June 7, they adopted the recommended recommendation of "no probable cause to believe Mr. Nelson violated the constitutional amendment prohibiting abuse of office for a disproportionate benefit and misused his position regarding the termination of the city attorney" and they have dismissed the complaint filed against me.

Nelson went on to describe the FCE and its dedication to accuracy and objectivity.

"...The commission is a nine-member commission with a staff of approximately 25 employees located in Tallahassee, Florida, that serves as the guardian of the standard of conduct for officers and employees of Florida, and its political subdivisions and functions as an independent commission responsible for investigating and issuing public reports on complaints of breach of the public trust by public officers and employees.

The Commission on Ethics looks at the facts and makes an objective decision that is not based on politics. During the investigation, the Commission on ethics sent one of their investigators down from Tallahassee to interview myself as well as former City Attorney Michael Rodriguez, our HR director, our city clerk, a local pastor, and others, and the Commission came to their final determination of no probable cause for the charges."

In his statement, Nelson alleges he was wrongfully censured for not firing Rodriguez and not misleading the Council about his employment status.

"The censure vote against me was brought forward because I did not fire City Attorney Michael Rodriguez after the council's vote to fire him. The city charter does not give the city council the authority to fire the city attorney or any other city employee. This role is relegated to the mayor under our strong mayor form of government. This portion of the charter was reviewed by my Michael Rodriguez, our current city attorney Cliff Shepard, and two other third-party attorneys and all agreed that the city council did not have the authority to fire Michael Rodriguez.

But the charter does require that the City Council must approve new directors. The censorship vote was brought forward by former a city commissioner for political reasons and had nothing to do with good public policy."

Nelson closes his statement with an accusation against Becker that, at best, is unconfirmed, and citing an unnamed employee.

"Prior to the censure vote, this prior City Commissioner asked a city employee to meet him at a restaurant near his place of business. During the meeting, the city employee was told that if I would not run for another term as mayor, the commissioner would drop the censure vote. The city employee has agreed to swear under oath or take a lie detector test to prove that this meeting actually happened."

I waited until the former Florida commission on ethics ruling of this no probable cause and ethics violation before releasing this basis for this censure vote last year. That was based on politics and not policy. For these reasons. I've asked the Apopka City Council to resend the censorship dated August 2, 2023."

Editor's Note: Nelson's accusation against Becker is a developing story and will be reported on in a future edition of The Apopka Voice.

No doubt Becker was a political rival and often disagreed with Nelson on policy, procedure, and ideology while on the Council. But no matter who authored the words of Resolution 2023-20, the facts have remained the same since the censure passed, except for Nelson's claim that it was politically motivated and a wild accusation about a city employee primed to take a lie detector test to prove his honesty about a possible Becker motive.

But the Florida Ethics Commission that Nelson touted as being fair and impartial, while clearing him of ethical claims, included a critical opinion on his actions about the censure portion of the complaint. Commissioner Diane Velazquez, who chaired the meeting as Vice Mayor, read this part of the report into the record:

"While the April 5th (City Council) vote to effectuate the termination of (City Attorney Michael) Rodriguez's employment, his May 4th resignation should have, the commission writes in its report. "On May 3rd, Rodriguez informed the City Council, including Respondent (Nelson) of his intention to resign and provided the written resignation on May 4th. Even after providing his letter of resignation, Respondent continued to withold the truth of the nature of Rodriguez's employment from the City Council during meetings and therefore witheld this information from the public. This action is puzzling. However, the question lies in whether Respondent had a wrongful intent or did he maintain his belief that he had the ultimate authority regarding the employment of the City Attorney?"

"The censure was about you being untruthful about the status of his (Rodriguez's) employment status," Velazquez said. "It had nothing to do with when we voted for his termination. And with the commission's findings, they called your actions puzzling."

That is just one paragraph in a 16-page report from the ethics commission that generally found no probable cause to pursue the complaints. However, the commission is critical of Nelson's actions as they relate to his statements about Rodriguez's employment status to the Council, which is the only part of the complaint related to the censure.

So, if you are hanging your hat on the words of the Florida Commission on Ethics, you may need a new hat rack.

It was a difficult item to watch the Council consider, and no part was more difficult than when Commissioner Nick Nesta left the dias to present... or re-present the case for censure He did this by simply moderating through three 2023 videos of Nelson making the infamous statement about Rodriguez's employment ending on June 7th at 1:30 pm, and then telling the Council that Rodriguez was still employed at the June 21st meeting.

Here are the three videos:

"The mayor was properly censured for lying," Nesta said at the conclusion of the third video. "You don't need any more context than what was just provided. The minutes from the meeting were approved by the mayor - he lied."

It should also be noted that Smith, who did not attend or vote on the censure in 2023, recused himself from voting on this item. According to Smith, because he didn't vote or attend that meeting in 2023, he should not vote on the current item - a decision that likely would have doomed the recension if a vote were taken. 

Ultimately, the item could not reach the voting stage and died on the floor—a mercy-killing of sorts.

Although nothing prevents Nelson from putting this back on a future agenda, I hope he doesn't. This item can only further unravel and polarize the City Council as it heads into an FY2024/25 budget cycle that will almost certainly be adversarial both on the dias and at the podium. 

It's not always the leader's fault when a group of elected officials spirals toward dysfunction, but in this case, there is no one else to blame. June 19th was an embarrassing low point for this Council. One they do not need to repeat in the future.

Censure, Apopka City Council, Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, Apopka, Opinion


3 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • MamaMia

    I think if I was sitting up there on that city council playing the role of the preachy moral police, lecturing the mayor for alllegedly deceiving the commissioners, and the public, I sure wouldn't have tried deceiving the public like Velazquez did, when she said the city attorney, Cliff Sheppard, wrote the censure! She sure had a problem saying who really wrote the censure, but everybody already knew who did, and it sure wasn't Mr. Shepard, the city attorney! He corrected her, and said he didn't write it, he only EDITED what was written. How deceitful, for the acting preachy moral police to suggest the city attorney wrote the mayor's censure...Grrrrr.

    Sunday, June 23 Report this

  • MamaMia

    What gives Nesta the right to attack the two other commissioners, who have different viewpoints than he does, and can vote, or not vote, however they choose, whether Nesta likes it or not! By the way, Nesta, if you take to the floor at the peoples' podium, you have 4 minutes, and you went way over your allowed time limit! Your video presentation was crappy, the sound was distorted, and since when do we, the citizens, have to take time to view commercial ads? Tacky.......

    Sunday, June 23 Report this

  • VoiceOfTheCommonMan

    @MamaMia-Deceiving and Deceitful is what you do in ALL of your comments.

    The Bottom line is: Did the Mayor LIE?

    The answer is…….YES!!

    Just simply tell the TRUTH (transparency) and STOP LYING about things. If you are honest about things from the start then you won’t have to worry about consequences that occur from your lies.

    Tuesday, July 2 Report this