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Why a lack of leadership might be worse than the Apopka Tornado of 1918


It was a cold January evening in 1918 when a Category F2 tornado with winds estimated at 150 miles per hour slammed into the little town of Apopka. Although there were no fatalities, ten people were injured, 35 homes were hit, and a total of $125,000 worth of damage was reported, which would be $2.7 million in today's economy. 

According to reports, there were no structures left standing.

"The tornado was preceded by a severe electrical and thunderstorm, which commenced about 7 p.m. and lasted until midnight," wrote the Tampa Tribune. "The tornado came up from the south. It was a "twister," and its path was a line of destruction. Everything on the track of the storm went down. Buildings were demolished, and railway cars were blown into ditches. Among the houses destroyed were the White residence, the Seaboard depot, Eldridge livery stable, Miss Howard's residence, Judge Weatherbee's residence, the schoolhouse, B.F. Wilson's store and home, and many other buildings. Some can be repaired. That there was no loss of life is considered marvelous." 

It was perhaps the worst day in Apopka's history. 

Apopka hasn't experienced a tornado that destroyed the city's entire infrastructure in over 100 years, but what it faces in 2023 is worse in many ways. The city is in the midst of a crisis in leadership.

In a previous editorial, I described the last nine months in Apopka as a Shakespearean tragedy. The events in that time frame include:

  • The accidental death of a young firefighter not trained on the piece of equipment he was ordered to move.
  • The pushback from the mayor and fire chief when the City Council wanted to add training and additional firefighters to the 2022/23 budget.
  • The formation of a revamped Apopka Fire Department safety committee that was later disbanded.
  • The acceptance of the critique from the Gannon report, only to attack its findings.

And after a March 1st City Council meeting that lasted five hours and 45 minutes, followed by a March 15th meeting that lasted four hours and 15 minutes, followed by the April 4th meeting that lasted an astonishing eight hours and 21 minutes, I'm hoping we are nearing the conclusion of this torturous drama.

But what will that conclusion look like?

During City Commission reports, Commissioner Kyle Becker called for a motion that stated the council has no confidence in Apopka Fire Chief Sean Wylam. It was the second call Becker made for that motion, which dated back to the March 1st meeting.  

"This is not sustainable," Becker said. "What's going on in these council chambers, in every single meeting. We talked ad nauseam on this topic. It's time to hire new leadership in the department and move on. But I want to make the motion. And hopefully, there's a second, and we can take a vote. If not, then let's move on to other things."

After making the first motion, Becker added a second bombshell - calling for the removal of Michael Rodriguez as Apopka City Attorney.

"It's not a personal thing," Becker said. "This is just an HR-related thing. If you had an employee that came out and said that you need to grow up and act more like an elected official in front of other people, director level positions, that act of insubordination in public ...that instance alone. It's beyond repair. So, I don't hear a denial that it happened because there are other people here that clearly heard it. Saw it. So, again, really, this is an HR decision. I've entered my grievance. I've made a motion that I would prefer to go with a different legal counsel. And that's my motion."

It is in these moments on City Council that a leader expresses their full-throated opinions on assertions made about a department head or a serious issue. A leader defends his opinion and supports his department heads. But Nelson tends to stay silent in the face of debate. It's not exactly a textbook move for a board chair, but it's the approach Nelson has employed many times during Council level discussions.

But Commissioner Nick Nesta has managed to change that dynamic occasionally by simply engaging Nelson.

"Mr. Mayor, what are your thoughts on this?" Nesta asked. "The fact that one of our commissioners can't trust our legal counsel?"

"Our legal counsel is here to tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear," Nelson said. "We don't agree on everything. I will sit down, and we'll go through the issues. And he'll say, 'Mayor, you really shouldn't do that based on a statute, based on our ordinance, based on our HR department. He doesn't offend me if he tells me. No, I'm perfectly happy."

"Well, I think that it's not so much a disagreement," Nesta said. "It's his... 'he told you to grow up and act like an elected official'... things like that. It seems like we're at an impasse."

"I'm perfectly happy with his performance, what he's done for the city," said Nelson.

Commissioner Diane Velazquez believes the disrespect she has experienced on Council runs deeper than just Rodriguez.

"It's just not with the attorney," she said. "It's even up here on the dais. I certainly don't feel valued by the mayor at all. I always feel very dismissed. So there are some feelings going on. And obviously, our public comments. Just listen to what everyone is saying. I'm not even going to mention social media, but certainly, public comments that have been coming for over a year and a half, and nothing is changing. And, of course, the fire department has been lacking in leadership. And I feel like we're not doing anything to try and change it. And as Commissioner Becker said, we're now getting emails from employees. So there's something missing when the employees are now coming to us. So how do we, how do we address it?"

After the discussion ended, the City Council voted 3-2 on two motions - a no-confidence vote on Wylam and to replace Rodriguez as city attorney. Becker, Nesta, and Velazquez voted in the majority, while Nelson and Commissioner Alexander Smith opposed both motions.

"We have to start somewhere," Velazquez said. "And the public comments in the last eight months have really given us all cause to say that changes need to be made."

"I hope you take that to heart, the will of this council," Becker said to Nelson.

But after watching the council send a vote of no confidence on his chosen fire chief, and a recommendation to remove his chosen city attorney, Nelson closed the meeting in a surprising fashion.

"Okay... three supporting our city attorney be removed," Nelson said, wrapping up the previous motion before moving on to the Mayor's report.

"All right. I guess that it's just down to me. This Saturday, April 8th, at Camp Wewa, we got the Easter egg hunt, face painting, we've got vendors, and a special visit from the Easter Bunny. There are two different sessions... one from 9 am to 11 am and the second one from 12 to 2 pm. The cost is $10 per car... so as many people as you can load into a car, and so we do have a limited number of spots. So just you know, if you want to get into I think we have a few spots left in each of those sessions."

Nelson went on to finish his Mayor's report as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened in this eight-hour meeting. One might consider it a disciplined approach, but in reality, it's taking the path of least resistance, and it almost always leads to a place where tornadoes of the century and other potential catastrophes dwell.

Apopka, Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, Apopka City Council, Apopka City Attorney, Apopka Fire Department, Opinion


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

  • JimNisbet

    Sorry, this is just looney. You're trying to compare a tragic accident that's been politicized to a natural disaster?? This is the reason the tragedy has not been properly addressed yet. Looney.

    Friday, April 7, 2023 Report this

  • MamaMia

    It is rather strange linking the 1918 tornado to Apopka current news, but hey, that's your thoughts, Reggie, and Apopka Voice is your publication. I have read about that tornado that came through here in 1918, and tore the town apart. I always compared it to happening the year before my mother was born, which was 1919. I read that Mr. W.T. Champneys, who lived in the big white house uptown, where Walgreens is now, across from Apopka City Hall, was lying on his couch, on the porch, I believe the story indicated, resting, and he had dozed off, when the tornado hit, and when he woke, he was still lying on the couch, but was now out in his yard! He slept through it, and survived that F2 tornado! This was of particular of interest to me, because Mr. Champneys was my husband's employer years and years later. I think that W. T. Champneys that survived the tornado, was the father of the other W.T.Champney, that my husband worked for. The house that was on that site, was later moved, and now sits near Ustler Road and W. Welch Road. It's the big white house with the porch. I have been in that house several times when the Champneys owned it, and always loved that home. That home survived the tornado, and was a wood framed home! I read that the Champneys home originally was built somewhere near Clarcona, and was moved uptown. Then later, was moved again to it's current site near W.Welch and Ustler Road. Moved twice, but the bad tornado didn't move it!

    Friday, April 7, 2023 Report this

  • MamaMia

    I don't remember the year, but I do know another tornado happened in Apopka, sometime after 2006, the year my mom died, and it damaged those apartments on Forest Avenue, close to behind the McDonalds restaurant uptown. They had to demolish most of those apartments, but a few are still there. My husband and I had gone to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fl. and we were shocked when we returned home to find out that a tornado had come through here. It was such a beautiful day in Hollywood, and we didn't have a clue that the tornado had hit Apopka causing damage.

    Friday, April 7, 2023 Report this

  • MamaMia

    Okay, the Apopka tornado that damaged the Forest Avenue apartments occured Oct. 10, 2006. My mother passed away in Feb. 2006, so I knew it was after she died, but it was still the year of 2006, not afterwards, to be correct, on my above posting about when that tornado occured in Apopka

    Friday, April 7, 2023 Report this

  • MamaMia

    Commissioner Becker, I have told you before that your behavior at the city council meetings was getting outrageous, and you answered me that you are unapologetic of your council behavior. I did hear you apologize to the city attorney, at another time, however. I am reading your grievance here in this article by Reggie. Are you actually wanting to fire the city attorney for telling you to grow up, and act more like an elected official? Is that bothering you that badly? Obviously, you don't need to grow up, but maybe when two different people tell you, you need to act more like an elected official, maybe you should let that advice sink in, rather than act out of anger and impulse. If that is the cause you list to fire the city attorney, that is not cause, not a worthy cause. What if all the working people of the world had an issue, or grievance, with someone they had to work with, and they could make a motion to remove the co-worker, no one would be working! The situation is repairable, but you are choosing to make it beyond repair. I see this situation as personal, not just an HR- related thing, as you state. All I am going to state is politics is a dirty game, and you either develop a tougher skin, and put up with it, or you get out of the game. There is no other choice.

    Friday, April 7, 2023 Report this

  • MamaMia

    If you want and demand respect, you must show respect. Commissioner Becker, you have been very rude to the city attorney at a previous council meeting, when you constantly interrupted him, and told him to "know your place" and also told the city attorney that " you serve at our pleasure.". That was uncalled for. Did you all hear the frequent speaker, at the last council meeting, Mr. Hall, the Navy veteran, speaking about his wife, when she asked him why he sounded so angry, when he spoke before the council? She advised him he sounded angry, and he listened to her, and announced he was going to work on his anger, and attempt to do better, even in the face of injustice he sees in the world.... OMG, he needs an award, and to be commended, someone is listening and attempting to be a better person! Did you all really listen to him? I hear him loud and clear.

    Friday, April 7, 2023 Report this

  • Richard

    Jim, politics has nothing to do with why this young man was killed. Failure in training, supervision, and communication all lead to his death period. Why is that so hard to understand ? The Fire Chief is ultimately responsible for the health and welfare of his people. Remember what he said, “ make no mistake, the buck stops with me “.

    Friday, April 7, 2023 Report this

  • JimNisbet

    Richard, Agreed! Politics did not kill this young man. And politics will not determine the root cause, or ensure it won't happen again. And that's what is happening. Otherwise, the questions I've asked many times now would have been answered, and we would be moving in the right direction. Instead we are in a finger pointing quagmire, and nothing productive is being done.

    Monday, April 10, 2023 Report this