The Ocala City Council will face a highly unusual situation when it meets Tuesday – determining if the winner of the District 2 race is eligible to serve.
Tyrone Eugene Oliver Sr., who is the co-founder of Ocala-based Deliverance Outreach Ministries, defeated Ire J. Bethea Sr. in the Nov. 19 election by just 124 votes. He was supposed to be sworn in Tuesday for a four-year term to replace longtime Council member Mary Sue Rich, who has battled health issues and opted not to run for re-election.
The issue centers around concerns that the 63-year-old Oliver may have been convicted of a felony more than 30 years ago. Ocala City Attorney Patrick Gilligan said in a news release last week that he was researching the issue and would bring his findings to the City Council at Tuesday’s meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. in the Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall, located at 110 SE Watula Ave.
Questions about Oliver’s eligibility surfaced shortly after the election. The issue was brought up on a local Facebook page and the city quickly launched an investigation. The confusion seems to center on the passing of Amendment 4 – Voter Rights Restoration for Felons – in November 2018. Questions have been raised about whether that measure also restored felons’ other civil rights, including the right to hold public office and the right to serve on a jury. However, the amendment language only applied to the restoration of voting rights and was silent as to other civil rights denied to felons, a statement from the city said.
“Mr. Oliver has been forthcoming about his past and we are working with his attorney to resolve this issue,” Gilligan said.
The city attorney called the situation a “unique circumstance” in the course and history of a city election. He said a resolution to the issue likely wouldn’t come before the City Council’s meeting, “and at the very least” until Oliver’s attorney had provided him with his analysis of the facts and the law.
The Ocala City Charter requires that a City Council candidate shall be a “resident qualified voter within the district from which the candidate seeks to be elected, and shall have been a resident of the City of Ocala for not less than one (1) year prior to his election to office” – requirements that were met by Oliver.
A candidate also must provide a residency affidavit where he or she affirms, under oath, that they are qualified under the Constitution and the laws of Florida to hold office. Oliver attested to such when applying for the District 2 candidate position, the city’s statement says.
Background checks have never been a part of qualifying a candidate for City Council. The City Charter does not mandate background checks for City Council candidates and the City Clerk has never been instructed to run a background check on any candidate for elected office in the city. Qualification relies solely on a candidate’s sworn affirmation that all eligibility requirements have been met and the Marion County Supervisor of Elections has no role in checking a candidate’s background or verifying a candidate’s eligibility to run for office, the statement says.
If Oliver is deemed ineligible to hold the office that he spent $19,241.31 to win – mostly on political signs, recorded telephone calls and mailers – it’s unclear what the next step might be. The possibility exists for a new election, although it’s expected that Bethea would make a case for being seated on the Council, since he was the runner-up in the recent runoff race.
Bethea was endorsed by Rich and spent $11,437.68 in the recent election. Following his defeat, he thanked voters on his Facebook page and offered a message to those who supported him for the District 2 seat, which represents Northwest Ocala.
“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I’m good,” he wrote on Nov. 20. “God has something he wants me to do! Pray that I’m ready when I’m called.”
Bethea also said the election wasn’t about him.
“It’s about our community!” he said. “I’m willing to work with anyone that has the best interest of the citizens and community at heart.”