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Controversial selection of new city manager back on Ocala City Council agenda

Ocala could have new city manager after Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.

The controversial item is on the agenda for the regularly scheduled meeting that will be held via an online social media platform to adhere to social distancing guidelines in place amid the Coronavirus outbreak.

Interim City Manager Sandra Wilson, Assistant City Manager Bill Kauffman and Ocala Fire Rescue Chief Shane Alexander all have expressed interest in becoming Ocala’s next city manager.

The Council on March 3 decided to postpone the hiring of the new city manager to replace John Zobler, who vacated the post in December. That followed a February meeting where the four Councilmembers – the District 2 seat hasn’t yet been filled – were split on their choices to fill the job. The three candidates vying for the position are Interim City Manager Sandra Wilson, Assistant City Manager Bill Kauffman and Ocala Fire Rescue Chief Shane Alexander.

At the February meeting, the Council chambers were packed and emotions ran raw after multiple people took to the podium to show their support for Wilson, including former District 2 Councilwoman Mary Sue Rich.

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

Things really heated up a short time later when Council President Pro-Tem Justin Grabelle made a motion to enter into contract negotiations with Alexander, which was quickly seconded by Councilmember Matthew Wardell.

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,” she said.

“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 Council President Jay Musleh, adding that he was supporting Wilson and hoped all three candidates would continue to work for the city after the selection is made.

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 and hear more community support for Wilson.

Eventually, Councilmember Brent Malever made an impassioned plea for the selection of Kauffman, saying his experience outweighed leadership and vision.

Because the Council postponed the vote in favor of Alexander, that means it most likely will come up again Tuesday night unless the councilmembers agree to postpone the selection until a District 2 representative is seated. That concern also was expressed during the February meeting by resident Whitfield Jenkins.

“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,” he said, referring to Rich. “If that leader was in that chair, I think we’d be looking at a different decision. This is troubling, this is very troubling.”

A runoff election to fill the empty District 2 seat is scheduled for May 19 and the city is hoping to get permission from the state to conduct it strictly through mail-in ballots because of the COVID-19 crisis. That election will pit Ire Bethea Sr. against Lonnie Hooks III. The initial winner of the District 2 seat last November, Tyrone Eugene Oliver Jr., was disqualified because he is a convicted felon.

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