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Friday, June 11, 2021

Gender-neutral proposal for Ocala charter draws venom from angry residents

Two proposals to alter the City of Ocala’s charter drew the ire of many area residents Tuesday night and resulted in a lengthy and at times tumultuous meeting that lasted more than three hours.

The most controversial surrounded a plan to eliminate gender-specific references from city documents. Under the proposal that would have gone before voters if it had been approved, references such as he, councilman, policeman and fireman – to name a few – would have been eliminated and replaced with gender-neutral language such as city manager, police officer and council member.

The proposal drew the wrath of a plethora of speakers, many of whom had to wait downstairs in City Hall for their turn to speak because of crowd limits imposed by COVID-19. They expressed a variety of concerns about the proposed language change, with many suggesting it could create a “slippery slope” and lead to similar unwanted changes down the road.

Many speakers implored the council members to stand above the “cancel culture” that has created controversy across the country. Some suggested it would open the door to gender-neutral restrooms across the city where predators could prey on children. And others referred to the Bible while making arguments against the proposal.

City Council President Justin Grabelle

Council members attempted to explain to those in attendance that switching the language was an attempt to correct a wrong where women were referred to as “he” and “him” in the charter. It was pointed out that a good example is City Manager Sandra Wilson, who council members said should be referred to by her title instead of incorrect gender language in government documents.

But that explanation didn’t sit well with the attendees, some of whom were asked more than once by Council President Justin Grabelle to stop applauding each speaker.

In the end, the group of black pastors who had suggested the change as part of a larger conversation about healing the divide between the east and west sides of Ocala had heard enough. Brandon Cave of Higher Ground Harvest said the group saw the charter as a good place to start after seeing multiple uses of “he” when referring to city officials.

Cave said given the response from the many speakers, he wanted the proposed change to the charter withdrawn, suggesting the intent of the move had been taken out of context. Council members agreed and the proposal was taken off the table to a round of applause from the attendees, some of whom then got up and berated the City Council for even bringing the matter up in the first place.

Mayor Kent Guinn

The second controversial change involved the mayor’s ability to veto an emergency ordinance. The issue came to light last year after Mayor Kent Guinn vetoed an emergency ordinance put forth by the City Council regarding face coverings amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Grabelle and Councilman Matthew Wardell were adamant supporters of the emergency mask ordinance, while Guinn – who was hospitalized with COVID-19 earlier this year – was against the measure. Guinn filed his veto in August 2020 and it was quickly overridden by the City Council a few days later.

But that led to a bigger concern among Council members over whether the mayor even had the right to veto an emergency ordinance. The proposed charter amendment would have still given the mayor the ability to issue a veto of an emergency ordinance but his window to do so would have been reduced from 10 days to 48 hours.

Guinn and Grabelle went back and forth during the meeting – an exchange referred to by a couple of Guinn-supporting speakers as a “pissing contest” – and in the end, the Council withdrew the proposal.