Commissioner Diane Velazquez is ready to move forward. At the Apopka City Council's May 17th meeting, she wanted to get the city attorney search process to replace Michael Rodriguez on track.
"I want some guidance as to where we go now with replacing the attorney, and we're having a new type?" Velazquez asked. "Are we interviewing for an in-house? Or do we, as a council, decide whether we want in-house or we want to contract an attorney as we once did before we went in-house."
She also wanted to make it known exactly why Joseph Byrd, the city attorney before Rodriguez, had resigned.
"Publicly, it's been said that this council chased away the last two attorneys, and I just wanted to clarify for the record that Mr. Joseph Byrd had resigned," she said. "I actually did get a copy of his resignation. He did not resign based on anything from the council that was in place when he was an attorney. He certainly was not terminated or asked to resign by this council. So I wanted to make that clear that Mr. Joseph Byrd's resignation had nothing to do with this council. To my knowledge, from his letter, he did not resign based on anything from the council. It was contrary to that... he actually gave compliments to each of the commissioners, and basically, it was a family matter for his resignation."
Velazquez is not wrong. In 2020, Byrd was complimentary of Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson and City Commissioners (at the time) Doug Bankson, Kyle Becker, Alexander Smith, and Velazquez.
In his resignation letter from 2020, Byrd writes:
"The opportunity to serve you, Mayor (Bryan Nelson), this City Council, and the leaders and staff of the City of Apopka has truly been an exceptional experience for me, and I am the better for it," said Byrd. "I have admired the concern and commitment that each member of this City Council has demonstrated in fulfilling your obligations to the citizens that you each represent. You have my respect and admiration."
According to his resignation letter, the Board of Professional Responsibility for the Tennessee Supreme Court offered him a position, which he accepted. Byrd also cited his family's desire to return to Tennessee.
"As you are aware, my family has struggled to settle in comfortably in this area since I accepted the position as the first full-time City Attorney for Apopka. Most of my family lives in Tennessee and North Carolina."
Byrd closed with praise for Nelson and his administration.
"Finally, Mr. Mayor, it has been an honor to serve under your administration. Your experience and knowledge serve this community in ways that perhaps the general public will not be able to see or understand. As you have allowed me to stand alongside of you as your legal counsel in many instances where the heavy burdens of your office pressed in, I can say I have never found a more committed public servant than you who truly cares about his city and in his desire to faithfully fulfill the duties of his office with principled discipline. It has a been a distinct privilege to serve under your administration and work with the City Council and staff of the City of Apopka. Thank you for granting me that privilege."
But Nelson, after hearing Velazquez assess Byrd's reasons, offered a new perspective from Byrd, dated a few months ago.
"I've got a letter from 2023," Nelson said. "It doesn't say, well, it doesn't say that."
Nelson is also not wrong.
After a public records request, The Apopka Voice obtained the 2023 letter from Byrd, and his reasons for leaving are different than his 2020 resignation letter.
In an email response to The Apopka Voice, Byrd says he felt compelled to write Nelson an email about his experiences after watching a video of an Apopka City Council meeting.
In his February 2023 letter to Nelson, Byrd writes:
"I am sorry to hear Michael Rodriguez is facing some of the same challenges that I faced in serving as City Attorney for Apopka. Harassment from social media, people abusing the Facebook pages of my family, and certain citizens and former/current employees taking photos of our home and my wife's automobile only to post them on social media (or giving the photos to individuals knowing they would post them with derogatory language) became threatening toward my family.
Often these behaviors (arguably criminal) were fueled by politicization and misunderstanding or distortion of events at the public meetings. I was accused (on social media) of speaking in an insubordinate manner to Commissioner Becker at one meeting when after three attempts, I tried to keep him from reading from an investigative report that I was asked to provide because, in doing so, he would have violated the non-disparagement clause in an employee's separation agreement signed by all parties, including the employee's attorney. The City could have been liable for the violation. You will recall this is the meeting where I attempted to go privately to Commissioner Becker at the dais after the meeting, and he yelled twice at me: "F$$$ you!" Several staff members heard him that day, I am not sure if the microphone was still on or if it was recorded. One person who lives out of state later posted on social media that I used the explicative to Commissioner Becker and questioned my character as an attorney and minister.
Similarly, there was feedback from individuals on another encounter (unfortunately, I have to point out it was Commissioner Becker again, but I would note none of the Commissioners was so argumentative with me in Council meetings when I was attempting to advise the Council). On this occasion, Commissioner Becker did not schedule a meeting with me prior to the Council meeting to discuss certain settlements that I was reporting to the Council - these settlements involved confidential medical health information. I had to be firm and direct and not answer his questions to avoid violating federal statutes. I was able to later meet with Commissioner Becker and explain how settlements are evaluated, but the damage on social media by some people was done. My attempt to refuse to discuss cases with confidential medical information in the public meeting was interpreted as not being transparent and hiding something.
Although other factors were involved in my decision to resign, the extraordinary hostility and threatening behavior fueled by actions during council meetings was the largest determining factor in my decision to resign. Unfortunately, it sounds like things have gotten worse for my successor. In my opinion, If the City of Apopka hopes to retain qualified professionals, a culture that respects staff needs to be demonstrated by the Commissioners and other public officials in public meetings.
My thoughts and prayers are with the leadership of Apopka and that the shared goal of serving the citizens would properly take its primary place in guiding the actions of each leader."
Byrd was the city attorney for Apopka from January 2019 until April 2020.