Gender-neutral proposal faces backlash

Matt Wardell of the Ocala City Council listens as people speak during public comments as the fire assessment fee is discussed during the Ocala City Council meeting at Ocala City Hall in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. The Ocala City council voted to approve the fire assessment fee during the meeting. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted April 19, 2021 | By Ainslie Lee,

Matt Wardell of the Ocala City Council listens as people speak during public comments as the fire assessment fee is discussed during the Ocala City Council meeting in January. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

A proposed charter amendment that would remove masculine pronouns in favor of non-gender specific terms, has some residents accusing the City of Ocala of giving way to “cancel culture” and encouraging a “woke environment.”

The proposed amendment would change “councilman” to “council member” and “policeman” to “police officer.” In the current charter document, all officials are referred to as “he,” including the city manager, who is a woman.

The amendment, if approved by the city council on Tuesday, will appear on the Sept. 21 ballot during the city election. Voters will ultimately decide the fate of the proposed changes.

Several charter amendments were offered by the city attorney after meeting with council members and hearing suggestions from the community, including during a workshop earlier this year.

Councilman Matthew Wardell has received the brunt of the backlash from those against the non-gender specific amendment.

While Wardell introduced the amendment on April 6, he did not suggest the changes as some surmised.

“Contrary to what many are saying, I did not come up with or ask for the gender neutrality amendment,” Wardell wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday night. “My only role in the amendment thus far was being the one who apparently drew the short stick last Tuesday – we typically rotate ‘introducing’ ordinances that are brought by staff and the city attorney to be debated and voted on at the next meeting.”

Rather, the change was requested by the African American Pastoral Leaders of Ocala Marion County, according to a letter received by the city.

In the September letter, the group of pastors asked that the council “consider reviewing and revising the city charter of Ocala, Florida and address its language which specifically refers to its members and all others in the masculine gender.”

The same letter also sought to eliminate designations of East Ocala and West Ocala in a unified effort to eradicate racial divide, as well as alter the structure of the city government so that the mayor and city council work in tandem to oversee the police department. Those suggestions were not included as a charter amendment.

But the gender-neutral proposal has some Ocala residents up in arms.

“Cancel culture continues to creep into our society and every day at a more alarming rate, and now it’s on the doorstep of our beloved Ocala as you are asked to vote on something that erodes away at the Judeo-Christian principles our country was founded on,” Dan Gude, a 30-year Ocala resident wrote to councilmembers in an email.

Wardell was taken aback by the reaction to the amendment. Appearing on the Ocala Talks with Tom Schmitz show on WOCA 96.3 FM and 1370 AM on Monday morning, Wardell felt there were more pressing issues on the agenda, including term limits on elected officials and salary caps.

“I can’t choose what’s a hot-button issue. I can’t choose what someone’s going to misappropriate as something it’s not,” Wardell said during the show. “I think the idea of insisting on calling our city manager, who’s a woman, a ‘he’ is weird.”

Schmitz, however, asked if the city didn’t have more important things to focus on than pronouns in the charter, referencing the city’s pending fire fee lawsuit, which could leave Ocala on the hook for $85 million in the class action lawsuit.

Wardell argued changing the charter to be more gender-inclusive could avoid future lawsuits.

“Wouldn’t it be stupid if five years from now, we get sued in an EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) case and then owe one, two million dollars to a bank of candidates who felt that they were discriminated against because our job description in our charter only refers to the positions being of men?” Wardell asked. “What would we say then after this has been brought up by an attorney, been brought up by a group of local pastors and we just turned our noses and said, ‘No, we’re a conservative city – we only recognized that men work at the city.’ That seems silly to me.”


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