A split Ocala City Council has decided to postpone naming a new city manager until at least April 7.
The decision came Tuesday night after councilmembers discussed the importance of having a representative from District 2 take part in the vote. That seat remains vacant after councilmembers refused to seat Tyrone Oliver in December because he is a convicted felon and not qualified to sit on the council. Oliver had defeated Ire Bethea Sr. in a runoff election in November to replace longtime Councilmember Mary Sue Rich, who decided not to run again after serving 24 years on the council.
Three candidates – Bethea, Lonnie Hooks III and Reginald Landers Jr. – are seeking the District 2 seat in an upcoming special election set for Tuesday, March 17. But if neither of them receives the required 50 percent plus one of the vote, a runoff election would be needed on May 19 and the new councilmember wouldn’t be seated until June 2.
Council President Jay Musleh and Councilman Brent Malever voted in favor of postponing the city manager hiring, while President Pro-Tem Justin Grabelle was against the delay. Councilman Matt Wardell was absent after being excused from the meeting.
Three internal candidates – Interim City Manager Sandra Wilson, Assistant City Manager Bill Kauffman and Ocala Fire Rescue Chief Shane Alexander – are seeking to replace former City Manger John Zobler, who abruptly resigned in December. Councilmembers had considered the hiring in a meeting last month that resulted in a heated discussion and outcries from the packed-house audience. Rich, who was among those in the audience, and many others spoke in favor of Wilson, touting her five years of experience as the deputy city manager under Zobler.
At that meeting, Grabelle and Wardell expressed their desire to see Alexander hired as the next city manager, which elicited an interruption from Rich.
“I don’t know how in the world you could say Shane was better qualified to run this city than Sandra,” said Rich.
Musleh said he had placed Wilson ahead of the other two candidates and Malever made a passionate plea for Kauffman’s hiring. All of the councilmembers said they hoped that no matter the outcome, all three candidates would continue to work for the city after the decision eventually is made.