Diane Velazquez is a survivor, and in politics, that's an important quality to possess.
Last year, Velazquez made history when she won back Seat #2 on the Apopka City Commission. It was a seat she occupied for four years before losing it to challenger Alice Nolan in 2018. But after Nolan resigned in 2020, Velazquez became one of only three members of the Apopka City Council in the last 50 years to lose a seat and regain it. She added her name to a list that includes two of the biggest names in Apopka politics - Commissioner Bill Arrowsmith (1991), and Mayor John Land (1971).
Velazquez, now the incumbent Seat #2 Apopka City Commissioner, is currently the only candidate running for it in its traditional 2022 election cycle.
Losing the election in 2018 was a blow that would keep most from returning to the political ring. But Velazquez took a different path.
"When I lost, I stayed involved, because I care about the city," she said. "It allowed me to work more and to really participate in the things I enjoyed. I love the Kiwanis. I love being in the schools. I love working with young people."
She also extended her portfolio when she accepted an appointment to serve in Orange County Government.
"I was given an opportunity by [Orange County Commissioner] Christine Moore to serve at the county level with the Planning and Zoning Commission," she said. "That opened up a door for me to understand true government procedures behind the scenes."
The Planning and Zoning Commission is an Orange County advisory board that reviews requests for changes in zoning classifications. Velazquez embraced the opportunity and dove headfirst into the new challenge.
"For two years I never missed a meeting," she said. "I really worked hard on it. I remember getting my agenda books... and they were big. At meetings, I would sit there and spread out... and the other commissioners would ask, 'do you actually read all of that?' And I said, 'yeah, I don't just read district two.' I read district one, district three, all of them...because you learn. My vote is important, even in those districts. So it was important for me to understand the needs of those communities. I take my votes seriously."
For Moore, it was not a difficult choice.
"Diane had previously dealt with the results of high levels of growth and development on the Apopka City Council," she said. "Her commitment to goals of ensuring 35% passive land and connection to sanitary sewer within new subdivisions made her a great choice."
After two years on the Planning and Zoning Commission, Velazquez was ready to return to the City of Apopka in her old role.
"It's important to me to be part of how the local government is growing our city and how it affects each of us," she said. "I love being in Apopka and if something needs to be changed, then I feel you have to be a participant."
The time away from the City Council has given Velazquez new confidence. She speaks her mind more than she did in her first term and is more comfortable with her decisions.
"I'm much more independent and much more confident in my choices," she said. "I have a lot more wisdom and understanding of my role, understanding the role of the mayor, having a solid relationship with my co-commissioners, and a relationship with the city staff. But I have confidence in myself. I may not agree on something, but I'll do my research and stand by my choices. So when I support something I support it wholeheartedly. If I don't feel something is right, I'm vocal about it."
Velazquez is in a place where she can vote in favor of a project because she sees the value even if she is hearing criticism from residents. Take the Camp Wewa acquisition for example.
"I've had a lot of people tell me we could have used those $4 million to do all these other things," she said. "But we would have lost the park. Camp Wewa is a park that I valued. And when I walked into Camp Wewa I saw it as our Central Park. The city is growing all around us and what is one of the things that people are saying on social media? 'We're losing our green space'. So when I saw that park... and it wasn't like we had to invent its use... it was already something that we were able to do. I just saw it as a value to our city and maybe not now because of COVID-19 and the financial restraints that we had during COVID-19... but I just feel once we get past this and we start growing... people are going to see the value of having to keep that park."
The American Rescue Plan was one of those times when Velazquez spoke her mind and changed what appeared was going to be a City staff-driven decision-making process into a workshop where commissioners could add input and their own ideas before an agenda was pre-set by staff.
"At one of the meetings I'm hoping to bring back to you a plan of all the different items we've got from our budgets and the different ways to spend the dollars," City Administrator Edward Bass told the City Council at an October 13th City Council meeting. "Keep in mind we've received $3.5 million and will receive the other half 12 months from June... and keep in mind during the budget workshops you allocated $1 million for road resurfacing. So we'll bring it back to you in November."
But Velazquez nudged Bass for a formal workshop rather than input from staff.
"So when you say you'll bring it back to us does that mean we'll do a workshop?" Velazquez asked. "Because when you bring it back to us, it's already kind of decided by the staff."
"If the Council wants to do that we can do that," said Bass. "Maybe have it on the same day as a City Council meeting."
"I think that would be best," said Velazquez.
Another issue that Velazquez voiced criticism about was the approach to the proposed land-swap between the City and the Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association by Mayor Bryan Nelson. Velazquez pushed back on Nelson's updates coming in the mayor's report, where there are no details leading up to the City Council meeting.
"If there's one thing that I'm not happy about or I have some reservations is... I don't like going on the dais and all of a sudden being surprised by an issue that I feel we should have been told about beforehand. And, each time he went up there, he would do the mayor's report and update us on Rock Springs Ridge, and I would ask, when did this happen? I don't ever want to seem too confrontational on the dais, but during the Rock Springs Ridge discussions, I truly feel that he created that division within our community that I had never experienced before. He has some blame in it... because from the very beginning, I just always felt surprised by these proposals and deals."
Although it appears as though the City is out of the proposed three-way land swap with the RSR HOA and the Golf Group, Velazquez still hopes the HOA can find a way to take control of the golf course lands.
"I would like to see the HOA, the Golf Group, and the membership, which includes me, to come to an agreement as to what that golf course is worth. What would it take for us to eventually own it? And a fair deal for all of us. I certainly don't want the golf group to walk away not getting something from it. But certainly, they can't expect to get what they put in it because it just is devalued. It's been sitting there doing nothing. It's defunct and needs a lot of work. But the residents are willing to take it on and bring it to some level of usage. The HOA has a responsibility to be fiscally responsible and make a deal that will work for all of us. I don't know why the City was ever involved."
Velazquez believes that given its growth in population and developments, change is inevitable in Apopka. It's not the time to stand still and rest on the governance of the past and present.
"I feel it's really important for local government to take care of its community now, but at the same time, prepare for its growth. When something is growing as quickly as our community, you have to be ready for it. We're a full-service city. We're telling them we'll pick up your garbage twice a week. If there's a fire or emergency, we're going to have the fire department or EMS there. So those are the things we need to prepare for in the future. We can have today's public safety, and then two years from now you have another 10,000 residents, but we didn't prepare our public safety to serve that 10,000. If we're allowing these developments to come in, we really need to prepare for that future to serve those new communities. We can't continue to govern the old way, we always have to be ready to move forward."
Her opinions on economic development also follow her viewpoint that Apopka has to keep moving forward.
"When we were a smaller city, it was okay for a mayor to take on the role of economic development director. Because, as a strong mayor, he deals basically with the day-to-day operations, he makes sure that everything's running smoothly, the city staff is showing up dealing with emergencies, he's networking with either the county or Tallahassee. So that's a lot of work. That's a full-time job. But when you want to grow your city with businesses, I feel we should have a person just to do that, because they can dedicate their time to economic development. Because it takes a lot of networking, and Apopka is not the only one growing... you've got Ocoee, you've got Winter Garden, you've got Winter Springs, you've got all these cities that are vying for the same thing. So you can't do two full-time jobs. It's nice that the mayor has been able to get some businesses here. We actually have the industrial park, which I think is fantastic. We have Goya, we have Amazon, but an economic development person would not just be bringing businesses, but actually having a relationship with those businesses. And that's important."
In her first term on City Council, Velazquez was known for her attendance at events throughout Apopka. That has not changed since returning. It's one of the ways she gauges what's important to the community.
"It's really important to be involved so that you can understand the community's needs. For me, it's being interactive with the residents. And I tend to do that by joining different organizations that I, of course, support... going to the events and just being out in the public. I shop in all the stores here. So I get to know not just the people who live here but the people who work here because they're just as important in our community. And it's really just connecting as best as you can with the people and being accessible to them. That's as important as it is connecting with them."
Velazquez served in the New York City Police Department at a time when females were not as accepted as they are today. She was one of the trailblazers in that department, and she hopes to lead the next generation of girls by her example.
"I did 20 years in the New York City Police Department when women were not on patrol... when women were the real minority in the department. And when people asked me why it's because I want young girls to see that there is an opportunity. I'm tired of telling people 'you can be anything you want to be'... bring them somebody that is there that they can see for themselves. And I think I bring that. I know I bring that to young girls... to young Hispanic girls and even teenagers and women. I feel if I can share that with others, that for me is worth more, someone can see for themselves where I'm at, then they can follow."
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