Change to emergency management operations discussed

The Marion County Commission is shown during meeting in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted April 20, 2021 | By Carlos Medina,

The Marion County Commission is shown during a meeting in this March file photo. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

The Marion County Commission requested a workshop to discuss whether the county’s emergency management department should remain with the sheriff’s office or return to county control.

The issue came up as part of the county’s strategic planning workshop in January as part of the county’s review of agreements with other organizations.

On Tuesday, County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes asked the commission for direction on how to proceed with emergency management operations. The department is most often active during tropical weather events, including hurricanes, but also is responsible for emergency preparedness plans for biological, manmade and technological disasters. The department has worked closely with health officials and the county to coordinate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agreement between the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the county to staff an emergency management director dates to 1988.

Currently, 53 of the 67 Florida counties directly operate their emergency management departments, prompting Bouyounes to bring up a possible change.

“I am not recommending either way, but I will be asking for direction from the board on what you want to do,” he said.

Commissioner Craig Curry felt they should leave well-enough alone.

“The person in charge of emergency management is doing an outstanding job for the community,” Curry said. “I like it the way it is.”

But fellow Commissioner Kathy Bryant felt it was time to take a deep dive into the 33-year-old agreement.

“The agreement was put into place in 1988 when this county was much, much smaller and looked much differently,” Bryant said. “Statutorily, this board is responsible for emergency management… I’m not so sure it has to stay where it is right now. If it does, then I think that the agreement needs to be much different, look much different than it looks right now. Expectation needs to be clearly defined.”

She praised Bowlin for his work during the pandemic but said a few times she felt they were not fully included in decisions.

Commissioner Carl Zalak suggested the sheriff submit a detailed plan for emergency management and that county staff also submit a plan for the commission to consider.

Bryant suggested they discuss the plans at a future workshop. The commission voted unanimously to set a workshop to be announced.

During the same discussion, the commission also gave Bouyounes direction to formalize an agreement with the sheriff for the operation of the Marion County Jail. The sheriff’s office has traditionally operated the jail, but the oversight falls to the county commission. Commissioners asked for a more robust operations plan, including detailed capital improvement plans.

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