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Workshop cancellation puts Apopka Fire Department one step closer to the abyss


About 30 years ago, I sat in a training class with about two dozen other fledgling sales associates. The instructor burst into the over-air-conditioned room and said something about drinking water through a fire hose and then posed this question to the group:

"When you're banging your head against a wall, when does it feel good?"

Thinking it was either rhetorical or that he would answer his own question, I mentally checked-out for a moment, contemplating if this internet phenomenon would actually pan out.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

The instructor looked directly at me... well, he probably looked at several people in my area, but inexplicably, I took it as a cue to respond.

"I guess if you bang your head on the wall long enough, you'll get used to it and feel numb," I said, missing his point entirely.

"No!" He said, frowning. "It feels good when you stop!"

"Well, that makes more sense," I thought to myself. I looked down at my notes for the rest of the class so as not to make eye contact with the ironic philosopher-sales expert and vowed never to volunteer a response to a vague riddle of a question ever again.

Ultimately, I learned the instructor's lesson when I left the sales business, took a couple of aspirin, and let the bruises on my forehead properly heal.

The death of a salesman.

But now, 30 years later, I wonder if that's a lesson Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson and the city administration must also learn... at least as it applies to issues related to the Apopka Fire Department.

For the second time in less than two weeks, the City canceled a workshop on the Gannon report, a 45-page draft, and a 27-page response critical of the Apopka Fire Department. It's a report the City requested and paid for. The first cancellation, according to the City, was because a Gannon representative could not attend. The second cancellation came approximately 24 hours before it was scheduled because outside legal council warned against it.

For months, the City has employed a style of attacking anyone and anything critical of them, scheduling workshops only to cancel them as the date nears, dodging difficult questions by hiding behind a potential lawsuit, and spiking a committee that's primary goal was to get answers to a tragic accident that took the life of a firefighter.

At a time when it should be laser-focused on getting to the bottom of what happened to one of its own, it's running the same set of plays over and over, which is getting them no closer to fixing the problems that plague them.

It's a move that frustrated Commissioner Nick Nesta enough to speak out on social media.

"The Gannon Emergency Solutions report review workshop that was scheduled for February 24th, 2023 from 10am-12pm has been CANCELLED," Nesta wrote on his Apopka City Commission Seat #4 Facebook page. "The reason provided is that our special counsel advised us to delay the workshop for now. A Commissioner at the most recent Council meeting brought this exact potential conflict up, but was blown off stating we're doing this for transparency. I am very sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused. Especially for anyone that had to move their schedule around to attend this questionably timed workshop."

Commissioner Kyle Becker was the commissioner who referenced the conflict. He, too, had much to say on his Apopka City Commission Seat #3 Facebook page.

"In light of yet another cancellation less than 24 hours prior to a scheduled workshop to discuss the Gannon Emergency Solutions report, I wanted to share my email to this administration and our attorney. Our residents deserve accountability:

This is the most disorganized, unprofessional handling of an issue of such importance I have experienced within all levels of both private and public sectors.

Now again, and similar to the last scheduled workshop, we receive a cancellation at the 11th hour because our own city attorney and administration did not have the foresight to reach the conclusion of outside counsel, i.e. avoid getting into a public who's right and who's wrong debate on a "draft "version of a major report of findings, and knowing there would be blurred lines in the conversation concerning FF Austin Duran during this workshop. The Mayor and Chief contracted with Gannon for a report. Gannon wants to deliver a report, finalize the thing and take some accountability for a change.

This is ridiculous. Since this email is public record, I will be posting it publicly, as they need to know the disorganization I am experiencing."

As Nesta stated in his post, Becker warned about the potential discussion about Firefighter Austin Duran's death during the workshop. Despite a gag order issued by City Attorney Michael Rodriguez because of pending litigation from the Duran family, Nelson was willing to go ahead with the workshop for the sake of "transparency".

"Why would we be having a workshop on a draft version of a report? Becker asked during the February 15th City Council meeting. "As a council, I would think that we would get presented the final report with the desired outcome of the workshop to ensure that there are steps to resolve the things that are the official findings that require action. This council did not commission the Gannon report, this council should have no input on what the final report should say. We're under a gag order for Austin. There's a large possibility that that will be discussed in a setting like this when we're talking in a draft state. So why are we having a conversation on a draft report? Why are you all, the people that commissioned the report, working with Gannon to get to a final state so you can present it to us?"

"That's for full transparency," Nelson said.

"But what would we provide in a workshop? Becker asked. "The purpose of a workshop is to have input and feedback. We don't want to change the contents of that report. We want to consume the final output of that report, and then as a council, budget, and make sure that the things that are supposed to be getting done are getting done. So I don't understand why we're workshopping it."

"I think it's something we need to do," Nelson said. "We need to talk about it because we [can] work through those issues and make sure that we're on the same page. There's a lot of things that they [Gannon] didn't follow up with the administration. We want to make sure that they come forward to us, that we lay out their position and positions that the Chief [Apopka Fire Chief Sean Wylam] and his administration have come to their conclusions, and we look at it, and then maybe they take things out of the report. Maybe we add things to the report, and then at that point, it should be a final report that we'd all be proud of."

Despite Nelson's call for transparency, it sounded more like an opportunity for Wylam and Rodriguez to debate the Gannon representative about its report. Again, it's "not seeing the forest for the trees" kind of thinking. But in this case, it's chopping down the trees to get the forest you desire.

Transparency would have been a timely release of the report to city commissioners, the media, and the public, and then explaining how you will respond to the report with improvements to the AFD rather than edits to the report.

However, fear of an impending lawsuit by the Duran family trumped the City's desire to debate Gannon and spiked the workshop just one day before it was going to happen.

It's hard to fathom the number of wrong turns it took to get this administration to Dysfunctional Drive, but here they are. Their left-turn blinker on, waiting to enter Abyss Avenue.

But before you make that perilous turn, I urge you to consider these steps to right the ship. 

  • Stop looking for cover and reinstate the Safety Committee to complete the pre-incident critique of the accident that took the life of Austin Duran.
  • Do not call a workshop only to push back on a claim that makes you look bad or to advance your agenda.
  • Do not call a press conference to attack firefighters with a different perspective, and do not misquote them.
  • Accept the Gannon report, and instead of attacking it, embrace the improvement it could trigger in the AFD.

Look, I get it. No one likes to face up to mistakes. I have a group of devoted readers that occasionally email me with critiques and typos they find.

I have two choices when I receive their comments.

I could take a few weeks, research their social media posts, spelling bee performances as children and attack them as too incompetent to know a typo from a well-articulated turn of phrase. Or I can find the typo they are referencing, correct it, and thank them. Generally I choose the latter, and in the end, The Apopka Voice is a better publication because of them.

Yes, it feels good to stop banging your head against the wall.

Apopka Fire Department, Apopka City Council, Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, Gannon Emergency Solutions, Opinion