Lawyer: Firing of Fla. fire chief a 'profound mistake'
Ousting of Ocala Fire and Rescue's Shane Alexander draws a crowd during city council meeting
Austin L. Miller
Ocala Star-Banner, Fla.
OCALA, Fla. — On Tuesday, two and a half weeks after the controversial firing of Ocala Fire Rescue Chief Shane Alexander, the Ocala City Council voted 3-2 to keep City Manager Sandra Wilson on the job.
Council President Justin Grabelle made a motion to cancel Wilson's contract, which council members were told was up next year. Brent Malever, council president pro-tem, argued Grabelle was unauthorized to do that since he is president.
After a back-and-forth consultation with one of the city's lawyers, Pat Gilligan, it was determined that, in order for Grabelle to make the motion, he had to pass the gavel. Grabelle passed the gavel to Malever and made the motion, which was second and supported by Councilman Matthew Wardell.
But Malever and Councilmen Ire Bethea and Jay Musleh declined to go along.
Lawyer Paul Donnelly sat beside his client, Alexander, at the meeting. He told the council that Alexander's character had been "defamed" by unfounded allegations spelled out in his termination letter. He said Alexander was not given due process or an opportunity to be heard before he was fired.
Donnelly said the city administration's decision to fire Alexander was "a profound mistake." He said Alexander wants to stay in Ocala.
Alexander had been fire chief since October 2018. He had received glowing remarks from Assistant City Manager Ken Whitehead and Wilson on his evaluation for 2020.
Alexander was one of three finalists for the city manager post last year. Wilson and Assistant City Manager Bill Kauffman were the others. Wilson got the nod in a 4-1 vote, with Grabelle the lone dissenter.
Alexander was fired on June 25. A single-page termination letter listed four grievances against the veteran employee. He was accused, among other things, of undermining city leadership by campaigning for City Council candidates in an effort to get himself appointed as city manager.
Before the vote on Wilson's job, many people went to the podium to speak in support of Alexander and in support of Wilson.
Angie Clifton told the audience, which filled the Ocala City Hall auditorium and overflowed outside and downstairs, that Alexander should've been given a chance to address the problems that were presented in the termination letter.
Former Ocala Police Chief Morrey Dean said all he wants is good government, just like everyone else. With his voice cracking at times, Dean said he loves the community, and believes that the Alexander situation is troubling. He offered a prayer for everyone, which asked God to be in their midst, to watch over them and guide council members to make the right decision.
Capt. Richard Grubbs of Ocala Fire Rescue, who is the union chief, said the department supports Alexander. He said Alexander is "a friend" and "mentor."
He also said Alexander is not someone who just shows up for work. Rather, he said, Alexander has been a firefighter for 27 years. He said Alexander fights for them and he's their "politician."
Scott Siemens said he was there "to support the city manager," and he trusts her to do good work. He added that things are going well in the city and cautioned council not to switch course.
Whitfield Jenkins, a longtime activist, said he did not understand why the issue was coming up in the first place. The Alexander firing was not on the agenda. Wilson made a decision; city officials should support her.
Former Marion County Commissioner Glen Fiorello said Alexander is "a first-class gentleman" with integrity who loves the city. He made the suggestion that if council members did not like the job that Wilson was doing, then they should fire her.
Those attending the meeting were given stickers that read "Stand with Shane."
The meeting attracted politicians from the county, high-ranking law enforcement officials from other departments and business leaders.
In his comments before the vote, Grabelle said the issue should not have been a surprise. This was council's first regularly scheduled meeting since the June 25 firing, and thus council's first time to discuss the matter; the Sunshine Law prevents council members from meeting behind closed doors.
He said Wilson can hire and fire personnel. But he wanted the audience to know that City Hall should not and cannot be run by what he calls "rumors."
Grabelle said Alexander received a good evaluation not long ago and all of a sudden he was terminated. He said the reasons cited were "weak."
Wardell said he hadn't seen any evidence that supported Alexander's firing and he disliked the communication process.
Bethea said Wilson has "his confidence" and has done "an outstanding job." He said while he may lose some votes, his heart believes there was something to Alexander's firing.
Musleh and Malever said they support Wilson and the job she's doing. They said they've known Alexander, and Malever said he knows Alexander's father.
Mayor Kent Guinn said Wilson told him about Alexander's termination. He said he asked Wilson if she had spoken to Alexander. She told the mayor no, she had not, because Alexander probably would deny the charges made against him.
Four of the five council seats are up for grabs in the September election. Musleh and Malever are up for re-election, and Grabelle and Wardell have decided not to run again. Guinn is also up for re-election.
(c)2021 the Ocala Star-Banner (Ocala, Fla.)