After effort to recall Apopka mayor fails, critics urge charter changes

A citizens’ petition drive aimed at ousting Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson from office through a recall election fell short of the required number of signatures, but his critics were hopeful they made an impact.

“This Nation was founded on ‘we the people,’ not one self-proclaimed strong mayor running amok,” said Dennis New in a post on the Facebook page of Apopka Citizens for Honest Government, which led the recall drive.

The group needed to submit petitions Friday with signatures of 1,762 registered voters who reside in Apopka. New said they collected 1,692 — 70 short of qualifying to push the effort onto the next step.

Nelson, elected to a second, four-year term in March 2022, issued a statement Tuesday, saying the city would “continue to work hard to be as transparent as possible and make sure needs of the staff and residents are met.”

“As with all municipalities there are some who we can never please but we strive to make sure that all legitimate issues are discussed and, if appropriate, acted upon,” Nelson said. “Our priorities haven’t changed. We continue to make sure that all of our departments are well funded, maintain adequate reserves, keep taxes low and do everything possible to improve our quality of life for our citizens here in Apopka.”

In the wake of the recall failure, New called for charter changes to limit the mayor’s authority.

“It’s past time for this city to switch leadership powers — from the so-called strong mayor to one where the mayor is just the chair of the [city] council [and] the city manager operates the city at the direction of the entire council,” New said. “It’s time to remove that layer of confusion and control.”

New cited confusion over charter language that put a City Council majority at odds with the mayor after they voted 3-2 on April 5 to fire City Attorney Michael Rodriguez, who remained on the job for nearly a month after the vote.

Nelson and Rodriguez had interpreted the charter as requiring the mayor’s approval to remove him.

Facing termination, Apopka attorney resigns: ‘I’ll save you the time’

Nelson was one of the two votes against terminating the legal advisor.

Rodriguez then resigned May 3, saying he had “serious concerns” council was exceeding its powers.

The Apopka group that circulated petitions listed 17 grievances against Nelson, some related to the on-duty, accidental death last summer of Apopka firefighter Austin Duran, which has been a source of tension in the city.

The petition alleged Nelson failed to hold anyone accountable for the young firefighter’s death.

Duran’s family informed city leaders they intended to sue.

The firefighter was crushed when a trailer filled with sand tipped onto him while he was moving it.

He had never been trained on how to move the unwieldy trailer, a fire union official alleged.

In the Facebook post, New insisted, “we got close, we made and will continue to make a difference.”

He also described the state’s recall process as “an uphill battle,” noting it was intended to be difficult because it “was written by elected officials that don’t want to lose their plush elected jobs.”

A retired firefighter, New urged Apopkans to challenge their government if they disagree with it.

“Stand Strong, speak out, email the council, call the council, come to a meeting, and speak out,” he wrote on the Facebook page. “If we don’t, then we are not ‘we the people,’ but ‘we the subjugated.’ “