The city of Apopka is a mess right now. But there may be a way out of this chaos if residents would adopt the approach used by most other Florida cities to manage their affairs. We need a strong city manager-form of government to replace the strong mayor-form of government we have now.
It is painfully obvious why.
For more than a year, the Apopka City Council has been embroiled in one emotional episode after another: The July 15th, 2022, death of firefighter Austin Duran two weeks after a line-of-duty injury and still-unresolved measures of accountability; a 3-2 vote on Jan. 18 of this year to hire an economic development director, a post that more than six months later, remains unfilled; the loss of a lawsuit filed against the city by an affordable housing developer who seeks to build part of the City Center project and the wrangling over the former city attorney, who was fired in a 3-2 council vote on April 5, resigned on May 3 and whom council members found still working for the city in July. It turns out that Mayor Bryan Nelson considered the council’s vote “only ceremonial.”
All of this and more led Apopka City Council members on Aug. 2 to publicly censure Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson. The 3-1 vote has no practical legal effect or repercussions, but effectively, it means that three duly elected officials in Apopka – a majority of the city council – find Mayor Nelson to be a liar.
How did Apopka get to this point? After living in Apopka for more than 35 years and having served as both a city commissioner and mayor for a total of six years, I can say with assurance that it is our antiquated, strong-mayor form of government that holds Apopka back and prevents the city from redeveloping like other Central Florida cities have done.
Apopka ought to be run by professional managers – supervised and led by part-time elected officials – not by the whims of a single individual who manages to get elected mayor. Apopka’s population has surged by more than 300 percent since the city’s charter was last substantially revised in 1992. Apopka has essentially the same form of government as it had in 1950, when my predecessor, the late Mayor John Land, first took office.
A strong city manager-form of government would help ensure that Apopka hires as its CEO an individual who has educated themselves and trained for the job, who holds professional certifications, and who hopefully has a demonstrated track record of moving a city forward. Among the things I learned in my four years as mayor is that the best candidates for city manager are ones who look for opportunities where they – the manager – are in charge, not some elected official.
Apopka’s need for charter review goes beyond simply changing our form of government. We need a charter that reflects the size and nature of our city today. Here are my recommendations for charter change:
The most positive thing that can be said for Apopka is that, for all its faults and foibles, is the prettiest part of Central Florida. If all you know about Apopka is what you see of our decrepit and ugly downtown corridor, you have missed it. Indeed, Apopka still has a great deal of potential to be vibrant and successful like the cities of Winter Garden, Sanford, and Kissimmee, all of which have found a way to turn once-dormant downtowns into thriving activity centers.
We only need to fix our governance system first.