Austin L. Miller
Ocala Star-Banner, Fla.
A review of emails involving Ocala Assistant City Manager Ken Whitehead and former Fire Rescue Chief Shane Alexander, sent from the beginning of the year through the end of June, doesn’t reveal any indication that Alexander was on shaky ground. But the review does provide some context.
The Star-Banner obtained the emails pursuant to a public records request.
In a termination letter dated June 25, Whitehead wrote that he had “lost confidence” in Alexander’s abilities to continue as fire chief. He said Alexander had “undermined City Council and the City Manger to the detriment of the organization,” among other problems.
Last year, Alexander, Sandra Wilson and Bill Kauffman were the three finalists for the city manager job following the resignation of City Manager John Zobler. City Council selected Wilson.
At the time, Alexander was fire chief. He was appointed to that post in October 2018 after Bradd Clark resigned.
In the emails, Alexander and Whitehead discussed multiple topics including fire department personnel, COVID-19, the city and the fire department budgets, and requests to attend meetings.
In the termination letter, when spelling out why he had lost confidence in Alexander, Whitehead said the chief met with a city employee without a director’s knowledge and made that employee uncomfortable.
The letter did not provide specifics. But one of the emails released to the Star-Banner sheds some light.
The email was from John King, the city’s director of fleet & facilities management, and was sent to Human Resources & Risk Management Director Jared Sorensen, with Whitehead copied. The email summarized a meeting held on Sept. 14, 2020 but was sent on June 28, three days after Alexander was fired.
The email summarizes a meeting Alexander had with Garrett Strong, facilities division head, at the fire department headquarters on Sept. 14, 2020.
According to the email, Garrett said he was “uncomfortable at the meeting” and wondered “why the facility director (King) was not invited or informed.”
The meeting “centered on OFR objectives and the priorities that must be placed on fire station repairs,” King wrote.
King added that Strong felt intimated when Alexander said he knew where he (Strong) lived.
King noted that the “meeting was upsetting to me,” and Alexander and members of his staff “did not inform me of any fire station-related issues necessitating a meeting with the facilities division head.”
In Alexander’s personnel file, Whitehead mentioned this same incident in a handwritten note dated June 24, the day before Alexander was fired. In the note, Whitehead said he called King on June 24 “to inquire about his (King’s) meeting with Garrett Strong.”
Whitehead wrote that King told Strong that he was “uncomfortable in the meeting because John had not been invited to the meeting.”
Whitehead wrote: “John told me that he is upset as well that he was excluded from the meeting, when every other time, the fire department met with John or John and Garrett.”
On March 18, Alexander sent an email to Whitehead about fire department changes and agency reorganization. Alexander told Whitehead he sent an approved plan from “HR/Jared and a list of Pros and Cons.”
Alexander wrote: “Staff included a pay increase for the fire chief position, but I am not requesting an increase.”
Four days later, Whitehead replied in an email to Alexander and copied several city officials, including Wilson and Kauffman.
Whitehead said Wilson approved the elimination of an assistant fire chief position that had been vacant for two and a half years, and decided to promote Clint Welborn to deputy chief. A savings of about $160,000 would go to the general fund reserve, according to Whitehead’s email.
Welborn’s promotion to chief, which happened after Alexander was fired, was announced to City Council members and Mayor Kent Guinn in a June 29 email from Wilson.
“While we understand that a public announcement is important, we want to provide Chief Welborn the opportunity to address his staff. It is important that Chief Welborn can address concerns and questions regarding this change in leadership and allow staff to hear from him personally that he has accepted this position,” she wrote.
Wilson ended by saying administration will “work closely with the Chief to ensure this is a smooth transition.” She added: “It is important to balance the duty of keeping the public informed with maintaining respect for our employees who are experiencing this change.”
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