Q & A with the candidates

Editor’s Note: Leading up to the city election, we’ll be asking candidates to weigh in once a week on a question about city government. The candidates are given almost a week to respond to the question in writing and we do not edit their answers.

At a recent city council meeting, Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn raised the question of whether it would be advantageous to shift authority over the fire department from the city council to the mayor. We asked each candidate what they thought of this idea and to explain the reason for their answer.

These candidates did not answer the question: Alex Everts, Curtis Jones, Brent Malever, Lori Martin Gregory, Gregory Steen

Kristen M. Dreyer:

At this time, I do not feel that it is appropriate to shift authority for management of the fire department from city council to the mayor. It is not necessary, nor prudent, to reorganize and entire organization because of the mistake of one person. Furthermore, our first responders need to feel secure that any changes within their organization are made based on empirical data and not political opinion.

Manal Fakhoury:

I believe that the council should manage the fire department and our other critical services. Our city, and our democracy, depend on conversation and debate about our goals and our needs. That debate happens in our city council. Our government should promote our principles, and Ocala believes in inclusion and equity. Our fire department should be managed by a deliberative body, not an ever expanding executive office. Firemen and other first responders deserve our respect and the tools necessary to do their jobs. City Council members who must vote on the record and can be held accountable by voters are best positioned to understand the needs of our first responders and their priority to our community.

Barbara Fitos:

No, authority over Ocala Fire Rescue should be retained with City Council at this time notwithstanding the Fire Chief’s abrupt termination and subsequent July 15th public reaction (and City Council’s) regarding the City Manager.

1) Proposal requires a charter amendment.  Given that the September 21st ballot, inclusive of three proposed amendments has been set, it is ill-advised to attempt to insert an amendment of such magnitude without utmost consideration;

2) With four seats/Mayor up for election, prudence dictates that any such consideration be deferred until the new council/Mayor are seated;

3) Reprecussions regarding the Chief’s termination continue re: citizen polarization, former Chief’s legal counsel’s assertions, and Commissioner Gold’s appointment of the former Chief to the Marion County Fire Rescue EMS Advisory Board;

4) The still unresolved issue of the non-advalorem fire assessment and the potential $80M liability in adjudicated fire fee refunds.

Ocala Fire Rescue has a rich historic legacy dating to 1885 as established by City Council.  To hastily dismantle that oversight and assign the Mayor the dual authority over both police and fire rescue, absent significant due diligence to address systemic issues, is counterproductive.

Kent Guinn:

I think under the correct circumstances it would make sense.

However the reason it’s being discussed now is to correct the firing of the Former Fire Chief, Shane Alexander. So how would that work? City council would have to put this issue on the ballot for the voters to decide. Unless it would be a special election it wouldn’t occur until September of 2023. If it were designed like the Police Chief, the Mayor would nominate the Fire Chief, Council would have to approve the choice. Then the Chief would report directly to the Mayor.

The Mayor would then have two people reporting directly to him.

The Mayor would then be overseeing approximately half of the City employees and approximately half the General fund budget. Things have a way of working themselves out. A change in the charter isn’t necessary every time there is a perceived wrong.

Jim Hilty Sr.:

I do not believe that the City Charter should be revised to shift authority for the management of the fire department to the Mayor’s office. This is based on past experience as a councilman, and a belief that the management of the Police Department  under the Mayor was in the charter based on the time it was formed Ocala was considered A  Second class city by population at that time. 

The population growth has obviously continued to grow.

Rusty Juergens:

Although I’m not normally in favor of making changes to the city charter, I do feel that adding a public safety manager would be beneficial to the City.

My reasons for this are, a public safety manager that would oversee both the

The fire Dept and the Police dept would serve in the capacity of management of both departments. this person would answer directly to the mayor. Therefore instead of having the fire dept under an assistant city manager, who  has to deal with multiple departments and may or may not have law enforcement or fire services experience.  This would then allow for a seasoned manager with both public safety and management experience. I think that would be a very cost effective position and make things extremely efficient.

Kevin Lopez:

After the termination of our previous Fire Chief and the resulting City Council meeting, I believe there needs to be a shift of management authority of the Fire Department in our city charter. Currently the city manager oversees the Fire Department which includes the power to appoint and dismiss the Fire Chief. The city manager does report to the City Council, however there is no approval needed from the council for those actions to be taken.

I think a revision to the city charter where the management of the Fire Department follows a similar process to that of the Police Department would be the best solution. In the city charter, ARTICLE II Sec. 2.08. – Chief of police, the Mayor has the power to nominate and suspend the Chief of Police but it is only ratified by majority vote from the City Council. This provides a checks and balances approach where each council member can be the voice of reason for their individual district and act as a group consensus for the city. By requiring City Council approval for a major action it provides an opportunity for discussion and evidence to be presented.

Barry Mansfield:

As important as this specific question may be, Ocala residents should understand why this question is even being asked of city council candidates. After 27 years of exemplary service to the City of Ocala, Fire Chief Shane Alexander was abruptly fired without any due process or corrective actions taken. At his most recent performance evaluation, less than six months from his termination, Chief Alexander received an “Outstanding” review from his immediate supervisor and the city manager.

As President and CEO of Cullison-Wright Construction, I place tremendous value on long-term, “outstanding” employees. What business owner wouldn’t? Especially in today’s job market. Afterall, if you treat an “outstanding” employee that way, it sends a powerful message to every other employee in the organization that you don’t value their contribution and that they’re disposable.

With that context, back to the original question. No, I do not support the charter change proposed here by the Ocala Gazette. What I do support is a city hall run on merit and free of petty politics. Where “outstanding” employees are lifted up and common sense is applied. We need leaders who understand this on the Ocala City Council and in City Hall.

Jay Musleh:

I think our City Charter has provided an excellent framework for running our city. I would not want to remove the Ocala Fire Department from the oversight of the City Manager and Ocala City Council. My concerns and reasons are as follows:

The Fire Chief would still need to be approved by City Council as the Police Chief is.

The Fire Chief would be subject to removal by City Council as the Police Chief is.

Currently the Police Chief submits a budget as the Fire Chief would do and City Council is tasked with approving the budget.

I don’t see how changing our charter benefits the City and it’s citizens.

Ty Schlichter:

I think changes to the city charter should be made only after careful thought and consideration. Governing documents should not be modified as the result of a singular event. A thorough understanding of the intent behind the separation of powers between the city council and the mayor would need to be discussed and understood before making any changes and consolidating so much power in the hands of a singular individual.

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