The Apopka City Council, at its January 18th meeting, voted 3-2 to create an economic development department. Commissioner Kyle Becker, who made the presentation for the formation of the department, along with Commissioners Nick Nesta and Diane Velazquez, voted in favor, while Mayor Bryan Nelson and Commissioner Alexander H. Smith voted against it.
Now, almost nine months later, the position, along with the city administrator position, remains unstaffed.
Throughout this time, local social media, commissioners, and The Apopka Voice have questioned why the process was taking so long. But in an email from Interim City Administrator Chuck Vavrek to commissioners, he states the problem originates with their behavior during Council meetings.
"It has come to my attention that there is a belief that in some way that the above positions [economic development director and city administrator] are being stalled or not filled for some reason," Vavrek wrote. "This is furthest from the facts."
In his email, Vavrek explained the process the City used to attract applicants.
"HR did advertise the positions and with regards to the Economic Development Director this has been advertised twice. The first round, the interview committee consisting of [Human Resources Director] Mr. Joe Patton, Blanche Sherman, Bobby Howell and [Apopka Police] Chief Mike McKinley based on the applicants that applied presented the best applicant at the time. After getting a consensus of the elected officials, a recommendation was made to repost the position. This was done and the committee interviewed three potential applicants out of the second posting. Out of those three, one stood out and Joe and I met with her and made her an offer to which she accepted and we were very impressed and felt very good. However, several days later she called us back and declined the offer stating that some family concerns (this was last week). Joe is in the process of evaluating the other two applicants and getting the committee together to see if either of the remaining two are viable and if the committee wishes to bring one of these two forward."
After describing a potential candidate accepting, and then withdrawing her name from consideration, Vavrek switched gears and pointed his finger at the commissiners for their conduct on the dais.
"When potential applicants question the committee members asking if the Council Meetings are always contentious, that shows that they are looking at how the COUNCIL as a whole communicate with staff and in the public eye. So to say this is staff trying to hold up the moving forward in the filling of a position, I take exception. I have mentioned to one or two of you in the past that you as Council Members also set the tone by which we are able to recruit and retain people to fill ALL POSITIONS within the City. When I have outside companies ask Directors why they stay here with a contentious council and try to recruit them, that is a problem, but like many of them they believe in what they do and the people they serve. My commitment as well as all the employees here are committed to the Community, like yourselves and we look for the best possible solutions and provide the best possible service that we can. Each of you need to take a strong look at the disfavor that you are bringing upon the Council as a whole by allowing for continued political conflict. This shows disfavor not only for you but for the City as a whole. I can assure you that there is not one employee that comes to work that enters into the workplace looking at how to create a problem, they come here looking for solutions and ways to resolve issues that affect the citizens.
Vavrek's email continued on to scold the commissioners, calling for them to put the public's interest above politics.
"That should be YOUR primary mission as a Council, looking to resolve issues and not how to continue to look at how to continue with political agendas. Putting the PUBLICS interest first and foremost."
After those scathing remarks, Vavrek returned to the idea that potential city administrator candidates are also hesitant to apply, due to the tone of meetings.
"As far as the City Administrators position goes, Mr. Patton has been looking and trying to recruit individuals for the position and at this point I have asked him to look at retaining a head hunter to look for a candidate. Again, many of those that he has reached out have looked and mentioned that they are not willing to place themselves into a toxic environment or state that we can’t afford them and that they are looking for a salary in excess of 200k. If that’s the case then to pay a salary in excess of the 200K I believe that a headhunter is appropriate and called for. But one thing I can assure you is that there is NO INTENTIONAL ATTEMPT being made to delay or fill the CAO position. I look forward to the day that I can start helping the new CAO assume the day to day oversight. (But I can share that no greater joy has been bestowed upon me from many of the Directors who have asking me to consider the position, and that truly humbles me). But remember each time you as elected official put your political agenda ahead of City business, YOU are the ones to blame for creating an environment where potential employees don’t want to come.
Vavrek also referenced a forensic audit called on by Commissioner Nick Nesta near the end of his email.
"In closing this COUNCIL needs to do one of two things, either come forward with a consensus of doing an forensic audit with the understanding based on Ms. Sherman’s calling around and obtaining that the audit as requested by a Commissioner of all transactions back to 2018 can run between 500K and 1million plus and provide a clear and concise scope of work or does the Council wish to just go on a fishing trip."
Vavrek then moved on to the commissioner's role as defined in the charter, but then back to his admonishment of their conduct on Council.
"Also, based on your positions as Commissioners, you can modify or change policy upon a consensus of the Council. If your beef is with the investment policy, then change it (Note: Our investment Advisor is preparing one that you all will have the opportunity to weigh in on and make recommendations), quit the political bickering and get back to the job of looking to place this City in a much better position. I was brought up thankful by my parents that you always leave a place better than you found it and that should be what you all should be focused on. You all, based on the charter are responsible for setting and directing policy, adopting policy and looking to the future. Get back to the peoples work and not your individual political agendas. I know that the employees are tired and frustrated with the continued bickering and mistrust that resonates from the dias to where they feel that the Council does not have the employees backs. For that you all bare the blame."
Charles “Chuck” Vavrek
Commissioner Diane Velazquez, who confirmed receiving the email from Vavrek, took offense and exception to his comments.
"I don’t feel the discussions and/or disagreements on the dais during public council meetings are the sole reason why applicants are not applying for those managerial positions," Velazquez said in a statement she sent to The Apopka Voice. "Look and listen to the entirety of those public council meetings. One can see and hear the public’s engagement during those council meetings. There are certainly other factors to consider."
One of those reasons Velazquez referenced was one Vavrek did not state in his email.
"I believe what played out publicly (last month) on social media via Facebook with the last applicant, who had accepted the position and then had his offer rescinded, may be a reason why there hasn’t been any new applicants applying."
What Velazquez is referring dates back to August when Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson and Vavrek interviewed, vetted, and ultimately hired former Deputy and Interim Seminole County Manager Joe Abel to be the next city administrator in Apopka. Abel accepted their offer only to have it withdrawn later in the month. Abel pursued an explanation from Nelson and Vavrek on why he was offered the position, and then have it rescinded.
On August 18th, Nelson emailed Abel his reason:
"Joe I had three people that I respect from Seminole County contact me to say that you would be a bad hire. Simple as that. Sorry that I didn’t do a better job of due diligence before contacting you and for that I am truly sorry."
Velazquez ended her statement on a positive note.
"I’m hoping applicants are considering to apply to work in Apopka & see it as an opportunity to showcase how their leadership skills and trustworthiness and Truth be said even, as we continue to operate without a permanent City Administrator or Economic Development Director, the council is conducting and Voting on important issues, matters and developments moving the City business forward."
Editor's Note: The Apopka Voice emailed Vavrek on October 9th for clarification on his email to the commissioners, and to learn who specifically he was referring to in his references to disgruntled employees and applicants, but did not receive a response.