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Appointment of new city manager delayed after Ocala City Council splits on candidates

The appointment of a new city manager was delayed after Ocala City Council members could not come to an agreement on which candidate to select.

During Tuesday’s Ocala City Council meeting, members decided to postpone the selection of a new city manager until their next meeting on Tuesday, March 3.

Ocala City Council will select the next city manager among these candidates: Interim City Manager Sandra Wilson, Assistant City Manager Bill Kauffman and Ocala Fire Rescue Chief Shane Alexander

The decision came after a heated discussion that, at one point, included President Jay Musleh reopening public comments to address an audible outcry from the audience.

During the first round of public comments, multiple citizens took to the podium to lodge their support behind Interim City Manager Sandra Wilson. Former City Council member Mary Sue Rich, whose District 2 seat is currently vacant, was among those that spoke.

“We’ve chosen city managers from elsewhere and we don’t want to go that route anymore,” said Rich. Rich suggested that Wilson’s experience and time as assistant city manager under John Zobler, who vacated the office in December, set her apart from the other two candidates.

Other members of the public agreed.

“It is with respect, promise, confidence, and for the city of Ocala’s best interests that our leadership recommends and supports Interim City Manager Sandra Wilson for appointment to the city manager position,” said Whitfield Jenkins.

Jenkins, who represented a group of leaders that convened to discuss the candidates, heralded progress made by Zobler, citing the creation of a leadership team that he said improved the relationship between city leadership and the community. He stressed the importance of continuing to foster that relationship and spoke highly of Wilson’s role in doing so.

After closing public comments the first time around, Council President Pro-Tem Justin Grabelle immediately made his selection clear with a motion to enter into contract negotiations with Shane Alexander. The motion was seconded by council member Matthew Wardell.

“Mr. President, if you don’t mind, I’d like to make a motion. I’d like to move that we enter into negotiations with Shane Alexander to become the next city manager of Ocala,” said Grabelle. Grabelle indicated that he hoped all three candidates would continue to work for the city of Ocala, and that he believed Alexander had separated himself from the others.

“Shane separated himself out in my mind, mainly because of his track record of leadership and success,” said Grabelle, suggesting that Alexander took over the “fire department at a difficult time” and made progress toward addressing its issues.

“I think the city as a whole would benefit from that type of leadership, and I’m hopeful that he’ll have a team around him that will fill in the gaps where he’s not as experienced. But ultimately, I think his leadership is what sets him apart” explained Grabelle.

Wardell, who represents District 4, echoed Grabelle’s sentiments.

“This is a tough decision. I agree with you, Mr. President, that any three of them would do a really good job for us,” said Wardell. He indicated that he believed Alexander was the “right person at the right time.”

Before the discussion continued, Rich interrupted from the audience to question the motion and suggest that another round of interviews was necessary.

“I don’t know how in the world you could say Shane was better qualified to run this city than Sandra,” said Rich.

“This is an incredibly difficult situation to be in. Deciding the fate of three employees that are extremely qualified. I think the world of all three of them,” said Musleh. He said he hoped all three would continue their employment with the city, and suggested that he, like Rich and others in the crowd, had placed Wilson ahead of the others.

“I would have had to put Sandra a little bit ahead of the others, just based upon experience. But, certainly Chief Alexander had an incredible interview with his vision and leadership, and I think he would do a fine job. And Bill Kauffman the same, with his vision and leadership,” added Musleh, reiterating that he would stand behind a decision to select any three of the candidates.

Before the council was able to continue its discussion, multiple members of the crowd spoke out and audibly questioned the commissioners, forcing Musleh to reopen public comments.

“I think it’s important to note that there’s an empty chair on this council. That chair represents District 2. I’m just very troubled, very troubled, that we just heard from the woman that sat in that position for 24 years. If that leader was in that chair, I think we’d be looking at a different decision. This is troubling, this is very troubling,” said Jenkins.

“Would you please answer the question, how can a person, who has worked as Assistant City Manager, and a number of months as the Interim City Manager, not be more qualified than someone who has worked in a leadership position over one department? Reading his resume, he certainly has great leadership skills, but you can’t possibly understand the totality of the whole organization as much as someone who has done it,” said resident Sarah Greene.

After closing public comments on the topic for a second time, the council heard a passionate plea of support for Brent Malever’s selection, Assistant City Manager Bill Kauffman. Malever explained that he believed experience outweighed leadership and vision as well.

“I just feel that we don’t have the feeling or the expertise that you’re getting with this nomination. It’s not exactly right. We need to have somebody that has more experience. More with the development, more with finance,” said Malever. He went on to praise Alexander for his work at the fire department, indicating that he would support that selection as well.

“I’m not saying that he’s not good. He’s excellent. He did a great job with the fire department and I’m not putting him down. I would go along with him in a minute,” said Malever.

“I think that it just comes down to what characteristics do you want your city manager to have, and at different times those characteristics are going to be different,” said Wardell. He indicated that although being on top of finance was important, the city had capable individuals in different positions that were already addressing those areas and that moving forward was his only concern. “Obviously finances are important, but we also have people that do that, the same people that do that right now for us.”

Ultimately, the council decided to postpone, instead of remove, the vote on Grabelle’s motion to enter into contract negotiations with Alexander. That means the vote on that motion will come when the council reconvenes in March. Council members plan on conducting an additional round of informal interviews before the next meeting.

The vote on that motion will be absent a representative from District 2, as the runoff election for the seat takes place on Tuesday, March 17.

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