“One Apopka For Progress” Divides Mayor, Council

article from The Orlando Sentinel

By Stephen Hudak

It started as a simple statement about equal opportunity.

A resolution proposed by black ministers called on city leaders to ensure that “no person or community is left behind” during the expected surge in Apopka’s economy.

Known as “One Apopka for Progress,” the measure proposed that Orange County’s second-largest city should strive for “justice, jobs, and a joyful and safe quality of life for all people within the city limits,” where, according to census figures, whites make up half the 46,000 residents, Hispanics account for 25 percent and blacks about 21 percent.

“It just says we’re not going to leave anyone out,” said Hezekiah Bradford, president of the Apopka Ministerial Alliance. “Who could be against that?”

Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer voted against the resolution he criticized as “just pretty words on a page.”

“It sounds like a campaign slogan to me,” he said before the vote earlier this month.

Bradford, a black pastor who bucked the ministerial alliance last year to back Kilsheimer’s challenge of longtime incumbent Mayor John Land, was disappointed in Kilsheimer. Bradford said the resolution was meant to reassure citizens the city was committed to improving life for everyone in the city.

“He ran on a platform of jobs, changes and a difference,” Bradford said. “He’s looking like the old regime.”

The resolution was eventually approved 3-2 by the Apopka City Council, after a rancorous debate during which one citizen stood to remind the mayor that “slavery is over” and another referred to a 1937 city ordinance that segregated Apopka, restricting black businesses and homes to the city’s south side.

City Attorney Cliff Shepard said the resolution was full of “platitudes” but lacked binding language to commit the city to any action or programs.

Though the “One Apopka for Progress” resolution did not mention race or specify neighborhoods in need, the reaction it sparked underscored a lingering divide in Apopka, where U.S. Highway 441 is perceived by many as a line separating the “haves” north of the road from the “have-nots” south of it.

“All the money is spent on the north side — nothing is done on the south side to improve that area,” Commissioner Billie Dean said at the meeting.

Since Kilsheimer became mayor in April, Dean, who has served as a commissioner for 21 years, has become vocal about minority issues in Apopka, questioning the lack of minorities in supervisory roles in the city and proposing that Apopka increase minority participation in public work contracts. He is the lone black member on council.

Others also have expressed similar concerns about whether Apopka is fair to those south of 441.

“What is wrong with all of us moving forward,” said Ray Shackleford, a black citizen who spoke to Council in favor of the resolution.

The city, which has always prided itself on lean staffing and low property taxes, employs 420 people — including 40 blacks, or 9.5 percent of the work force. The city also employs 54 Hispanics, or 12.5 percent of its work force, according to figures provided by Sharon Thornton, Apopka’s director of human resources.

The 90-member Apopka Police Department has four black officers, two of whom are new hires, and 16 Hispanics, including a captain and a sergeant.

Of the 86 nonelected, supervisory city positions, four are held by blacks and eight by Hispanics.

Unlike the city of Orlando, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority and Orange County Public Schools, Apopka lacks a minority-owned business program that could help blacks, Hispanics and women win a bigger share of jobs linked to publicly financed projects. Orlando’s program has been in place since 1983.

Apopka, once an agricultural town, is poised for new kinds of growth with several large developments on the drawing board, including a $180 million relocation of Florida Hospital Apopka and Kelly Park Crossing, a proposed billion-dollar residential and commercial project planned around a toll-road interchange.

Kilsheimer recognized that disparities exist, saying “economic conditions on the south side of Apopka are less than they are in other parts of Apopka.”

“I do think there is pent-up demand for change,” he said. “The people who desire change would have liked for it to have occurred yesterday.”

Kilsheimer said his administration is trying to help everyone.

Since he took office, the city has hired 46 employees. Among them are seven Hispanics and eight blacks. His top two hires were both white, City Administrator Glenn Irby and Finance Director Pam Barclay. Kilsheimer said he would like to re-establish a community-redevelopment district, which could boost downtown businesses and south-side neighborhoods.

The city also wants to use more than $500,000 in block-grant money to build a “splash pad” at Alonzo Williams Park south of 441, he said.

The other vote against the One Apopka resolution was cast by Sammy Ruth, a white commissioner elected last year while running with Kilsheimer and Diane Velazquez, the city’s first Hispanic commissioner. Ruth prefaced his nay by announcing without explanation that his daughter-in-law and grandson are biracial.

“I’m all for one Apopka,” Ruth said later.

But Ruth said he saw the measure as criticism of the mayor’s first year in office “as if we’ve left someone behind in what we’re doing.”

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