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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Assistant City Attorney: Ocala is under assault by ACLU, Southern Legal Counsel

The City of Ocala has appointed the City Attorney’s Office as the lead on a case which the office labeled as an “assault” on Ocala by the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Legal Counsel.

Assistant City Attorney Robert Batsel made the remarks during the June 15 meeting of the Ocala City Council, when council members were asked for direction regarding hiring legal representation.

“We are under assault by the ACLU and Southern [Legal] Counsel and other entities that are trying to send political messages in the courthouse,” said Batsel.

The lawsuit in question challenges two municipal ordinances enacted by the City of Ocala that restrict a group of six homeless individuals’ “ability to request charity from fellow residents,” according to the complaint filed with the U.S. Middle District Court of Florida. It alleges that the ordinances unfairly put the homeless “in jail for the content of their speech,” violating free speech and due process.

Batsel indicated that although insurance companies would likely recommend adequate options, it was important that the hired legal representation understood “who we are, what our residents want” and what prior city councils have done. He suggested that the City Attorney’s office was uniquely qualified, and that it would seek additional help as it saw fit.

City council members agreed with Batsel’s recommendation.

“I trust that if Mr. Batsel says they can handle it, they can handle it. If the time comes to do anything different, we will,” said council member Matthew Wardell, who recently announced his resignation from the Ocala City Council.

“I would support keeping it in house,” said council member Jay Musleh, citing the City Attorney’s familiarity with local ordinances as a key advantage.

Mayor Kent Guinn, who opened remarks by suggesting the case was similar to another lawsuit settled on behalf of the late Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham, was adamant that the city win at all costs.

“This isn’t about money, this is about we got to win this,” said Guinn. “ACLU and Southern [Legal Counsel] could care less about Ocala, Florida. They would just as soon see people sleeping all over the streets, they could care less,” added Guinn.