Fire chief termination still burns at council meeting

Shane Alexander, the former Ocala Fire Chief, center, sits with his wife and his attorney, Paul Donnelly during the July 6 Ocala City Council meeting. Alexander, who was terminated by City Manager Sandra Wilson attended the July 20 meeting as well. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Sentiments over the recent firing of Ocala Fire Rescue Chief Shane Alexander were still running hot at Tuesday’s Ocala City Council meeting.

Residents alternatively in support of Alexander and City Manager Sandra Wilson, who previously survived a vote to fire her in response to her termination of Alexander, spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting.

All the while, Alexander sat with his lawyer in the front row of the council chamber’s public gallery.

Former Marion County Commissioner Glen Fiorello, who called for Wilson’s firing at the council’s July 6 meeting, did so again on Tuesday. And again, he used the words of former City Councilwoman Mary Sue Rich to punctuate his argument.

When Wilson was under consideration for the position in 2020, Rich said the council always had the right to fire her if she did not perform.

But on Tuesday, Rich was at the meeting to “clarify my name.”

“Mr. Fiorello said that I said, ‘Fire Sandra.’ And I did, if she was not doing her job. She’s doing an excellent job running this city, and I don’t see why we have to bring this up each week,” she said.

Alexander was fired on June 25 by Wilson at the recommendation of Assistant City Manager Ken Whitehead. Among the reasons given for his termination were undermining the city council and the city manager to the detriment of the organization and eroding trust in the organization by creating a counter-productive and uncomfortable work environment for city staff.

Jeremiah Greathouse, an attorney with Donnelly & Gross, which is representing Alexander, also addressed the council.

He said the firm started its investigation, and what they have found is concerning. Aside from the termination letter, there is little substance, he said.

“The lack of truth that’s placed in this letter. The reasoning that is placed in this letter isn’t substantiated. There isn’t an announced investigation. This was abrupt,” Greathouse said. “I think that’s the rift that you’re starting to feel.”

Alexander and Wilson were both seeking the city manager’s position in 2020. Alexander had the support of current Council President Justin Grabelle and Councilman Matt Wardell. Wilson eventually got the support of Wardell, as well as Councilmen Ire Bethea, Brent Malever and Jay Musleh.

On Tuesday, Grabelle said the council addressed the issue at the July 6 meeting. His motion to fire Wilson was defeated 3-2. Unless any on the council had changed their opinion, the matter was settled, he said.

Neither Bethea, Malever nor Musleh, who all voted to keep Wilson, indicated they had changed positions.

“I think council had a pretty frank discussion at the last meeting. I think the easiest thing to do is hire him back… Unfortunately, we don’t have that authority as city council,” Grabelle said.

The council moved on to other business, but tension again flared during the council’s final comment period.

Bethea asked fellow council members to unite as one voice.

“People are looking at us. They are looking at the city staff, and what they hear from us matters. I support city management. I am hoping that the rest of you do. We have voted on this. We don’t need to keep coming back to it. All we’re doing is putting fuel on the fire because there are things being said out of here by some of us that should not be said,” he said.

Matt Wardell, who voted to fire Wilson at the July 6 meeting, took offense to Bethea’s comments.

“No one on this council bought this issue up. I really don’t appreciate being lectured about bringing this issue up,” he said, adding the council should not blindly support city staff.

Musleh said residents have a right to speak to the council about what they choose. He also said he asked the city auditor to look at the process of how Alexander was fired.

“He didn’t actually audit the reasons why. He audited the process and, correct me if I am wrong, the process fit the policy of our organization,” he said.

Grabelle, who was the only council member to vote against Wilson’s appointment in 2020, said he would not keep silent to foster a sense of unity.

“If I see something that’s wrong, I’m going to speak up about it… What happened to (Shane) is a disgrace,” he said.

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