The City of Ocala has a new police chief.
Interim Chief Mike Balken was appointed to serve as the city’s 31st police chief following the death last month of Chief Greg Graham in a plane crash near Dunnellon. Balken was appointed by Mayor Kent Guinn as interim chief shortly after Graham’s death on Oct. 25.
Guinn nominated Balken to the City Council on Tuesday night and he was approved by a unanimous vote. Several people spoke in favor of moving Balken into the top spot in the police department, including Graham’s widow, Amy. She said that Graham was grooming Balken to be the city’s next chief and made it quite clear that he was the right person for the job. She said she and Graham had talked about Balken moving into the top job after her husband retired and she believed he was ready to take on the assignment.
Dunnellon Police Chief Mike McQuaig echoed those sentiments. He said he’s always enjoyed working alongside Balken and he appreciates the way he conducts himself as a law enforcement professional.
Balken, who received a standing ovation after being approved by the City Council, said he’s looking forward to serving as chief. He said he loves the City of Ocala and its residents and he looks forward to leading the police department in the years ahead.
Balken’s unanimous approval came as somewhat of a surprise following statements made two weeks ago by Councilmembers Ire Bethea Sr. and Council President Pro Tem Justin Grabelle. During the Nov. 3 City Council meeting, Bethea urged Guinn to wait a month in honor of Graham before making a recommendation for a new chief. He also brought up some issues with performance reviews for the agency’s senior staff, including Maj. Corey Taylor, who serves as commander of the multi-agency Drug Enforcement Strike Team and in February was honored during a ceremony in Washington, D.C. as Outstanding Task Force Commander of the Year.
Bethea said at the time that he didn’t have anything against Balken but suggested that maybe others in the department needed to be considered for the chief’s position. He said staff “should be evaluated” and there “should be some documentation.”
Council President Pro Tem Justin Grabelle also said he thought the mayor’s recommendation was coming too quickly. He said he hadn’t had an opportunity to get to know Balken very well and looked forward to talking with him and hearing his thoughts about the future of the city.
Those concerns didn’t deter Guinn, who made it quite clear that Balken was his choice. He pointed out that Graham had been grooming Balken as deputy chief to someday take on the top job in a police department.
Guinn also reminded the councilmembers that the city charter calls for the mayor to select the police chief and bring that recommendation forward. He said the charter makes it clear that Council members “shall” appoint the nomination brought forth by the mayor.
“Shall means shall,” Guinn said, adding that he had spoken with attorneys about the issue and “shall” has a much different meaning than “may,” a word that wasn’t used in the charter language.