Wilson survives vote to fire her as city manager

File photo: Ocala City Manager Sandra Wilson listens as the Ocala City Council votes to not remove her from her position during the Ocala City Council meeting at Ocala City Hall in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Former Ocala Fire Chief Shane Alexander was fired from his position last week by Ocala City Manager Sandra Wilson. The Ocala City Council voted not to remove Wilson from her position as City Manager for firing Alexander during the meeting. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted July 6, 2021 | By Carlos Medina, carlos@ocalagazette.com

Ocala City Manager Sandra Wilson listens as the Ocala City Council votes to not remove her from her position during Tuesday’s council meeting. Former Ocala Fire Chief Shane Alexander was fired from his position last week by Wilson. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 

City Manager Sandra Wilson survived a move to remove her during Tuesday’s Ocala City Council meeting in the wake of her firing former Ocala Fire Chief Shane Alexander.

The council voted 3-2 against the motion, which was put forward by Council President Justin Grabelle.

Councilman Matt Wardell voted with Grabelle. Councilmen Jay Musleh, Brent Malever and Ire Bethea voted against the motion and said Wilson had their confidence to continue as city manager.

Despite numerous calls by the public to reinstate Alexander, the council does not have the power to take that step. Only the city manager has the power to hire and fire subordinates.

Just before the vote, Paul Donnelly, Alexander’s attorney seemingly fired a shot across the city’s bow, signaling a lawsuit in response to Alexander not being reinstated.

“The legal system has an answer for those things when city managers, acting for government, defame people and make accusations like those that were made here that were completely and totally unfounded,” Donnelly said.

Donnelley said Alexander was neither given a chance to hear the allegations against him, nor the opportunity to respond before his termination.

“That is a violation of law. This is a profound mistake for the city of Ocala. We were hoping you would correct it and avoid this mistake from getting worse,” he said. “(Alexander) wants to stay here, and he will stay here, and he will be back as fire chief.”

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, among other reasons.

Shane Alexander, the former Ocala Fire Chief, left, becomes emotional as he sits with his attorney, Paul Donnelly during the Ocala City Council meeting on Tuesday. Alexander was fired from his position last week by Ocala City Manager Sandra Wilson. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 

“I never heard that before last Friday. I still don’t have any evidence,” Wardell said of the accusation of undermining.

Grabelle also questioned the substance behind the firing.

“Frankly, the main charge that we’ve all heard is that Shane was undermining Sandra. I have been presented with no evidence to that. All I have heard is hearsay. We can’t have a city hall run by rumor,” he said.

In Alexander’s termination letter, Whitehead did not detail how he actively campaigned to replace council members but did state two business leaders brought the matter to the city’s attention and were “alarmed by your actions.”

After the details of the termination letter came out, Ken Ausley and Angie Lewis, two area businesspeople, sent an email to Wilson worried they were the two business leaders referenced in the letter. The pair met with Wilson on June 22.

“If it is our meeting that is being referenced, we are stunned. In no way did we ever suggest or insinuate that Chief Alexander had involvement in anything of the sort,” according to the email, which was also copied to the city council.

The city has not responded if Ausley and Lewis were the two business leaders mentioned in Alexander’s termination letter.

Another reason listed for his termination was poorly managed internal grant procedures.

The charge was related to the handling of a $558,736 grant award managed by Ocala Fire Rescue. According to a city spokeswoman, details the city confirmed were sufficient enough to establish that certain internal city procedures were not followed by Ocala Fire Rescue. The city said the investigation was still pending at the time of Alexander’s firing, and none of the details were immediately released.

Justin Grabelle, the president of the Ocala City Council, right, makes a motion to fire Ocala City Manager Sandra Wilson as he sits with Councilman Brent Malever, left, during the Ocala City Council meeting on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. The council voted 3-2 not to remove Wilson from her position. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Other reasons cited for his termination were the amount of idling time by Alexander and his not using his city-issued phone for work calls.

The “idling” time item is related to the amount of time Alexander’s vehicle remained stationary while the engine was running. A detailed report about his vehicle listed 114 idle violations from March 26 through June 24 ranging from more than 10 minutes up to almost three hours. City vehicles should not remain idle for more than five minutes. Phone records also showed Alexander had not used his city-issued cellular phone since at least April, and only one bill in the last 12 months showed phone activity, according to records.

City policy requires employees to use their city-issued cell phones for official business because they are subject to public information requests.

But Wardell said those issues were ongoing for months and sometimes years without being brought to Alexander’s attention or documented in his personnel file.

Grabelle went further when addressing the reasons given for Alexander’s firing.

“You took an exemplary employee and threw as much stuff at the wall to see if it would stick, and frankly, it is all weak. There is nothing in there that is a fireable offense, especially not a rumor,” he said.

Wilson did not comment during the meeting.

In February 2020, Alexander was one of three finalists selected for city manager after then-City Manager John Zobler stepped down unexpectedly. Then-Interm City Manager Wilson and Assistant City Manager Bill Kauffman were the other two candidates.

When it came time to select one candidate, the council split. Councilmen Justin Grabelle and Matt Wardell backed Alexander, then-President Jay Musleh wanted Wilson, and Councilman Brent Malever picked Kauffman. The council’s fifth seat was open at the time, and the council agreed to wait for a special election to fill the seat before voting.

After Bethea was installed into the District 2 seat in June, the council voted 4-1 to offer the position to Sandra Wilson. Grabelle was the only dissenting vote.

But some who voted for Wilson to remain also had issues with the way Alexander was fired.

“What happened in the last week has broken my heart,” said Musleh. “I hate to see it. But at the end of the day, I am going to support our city manager. I may not agree with the file, how it was constructed… One of our jobs is to oversee the city manager. I don’t think two wrongs make a right.”

Brent Malever said he also was conflicted, thinking highly of both Alexander and Wilson.

“It’s hard for me to say, but I’ll have to back our city manager,” he said.

Before the council’s comments, several residents expressed their support for Wilson and Alexander.

“We have a city manager the leads. She inspires, and she works to make this one Ocala. Let’s support her,” said Margaret Spontak.

Many of Alexander’s supporters wore “I stand with Shane” stickers, including County Commissioner Kathy Bryant, who attended the meeting but did not speak.

Richard Grubbs, president of the Professional Firefighters of Ocala, said the union stands behind Alexander.

“We’re 140 guys behind him 100%,” Grubbs said.

Other public officials attending the meeting included County Commissioner Jeff Gold, Florida Rep. Joe Harding and Marion County Sheriff’s Billy Woods. None spoke during the meeting.

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