Don't cast your vote aside


I think a lot of people might sit this one out.


The April 6th special election will seat a successful candidate who may well be un-seated in the regular November election. The term is less than a year - the remainder of Scott Franklin’s four-year commitment which he abandoned to foster his own success as a U.S. Congressman - and new candidates may emerge.


None of the four men in the race have ever won an elective office. They are all noble citizens determined to bring their own sense of citizenship to the government of our city.


They have engaged the community in the structured settings of public forums, in casual encounters on city streets, and on social media. They all say they want to serve.


It’s not entirely clear what that means - to them, or to us. Facebook posts and Q&A sessions yield a broad view of the role of the City in our daily lives, but also illustrate a disconnect between their stated ambitions and the reality of running a local government.


Low taxes.

Transparency.

“What I would do (or have done) differently.”

Community engagement.

These themes have formed the core of the conversation. Some clarifications may be in order.


Taxes. The only citizens of Lakeland who pay taxes are property owners, and the Commission has worked diligently over the years to keep the rate relatively low. The total take represents a small fraction of the City’s annual budget and - on its own - would not be enough to fund the police. Most of the rest of the operating costs are met with revenue from services like electricity, water and sewer, building permits, and user fees. The annual ‘dividend” from Lakeland Electric is about a third more than property taxes produce.


Transparency. Florida’s Sunshine Law requires that all meetings of elected representatives - even as few as two - must be publicly noticed and open to the citizens. The Commissioners are forbidden by law from meeting with each other privately. The City of Lakeland records all its public meetings and delivers them to its own video channel on Vimeo. Every Commission meeting includes an invitation for residents in attendance to comment. At the height of the pandemic, meetings were conducted online and “viewers” were given the opportunity to address the Commissioners via telephone.


The Commissioners often meet with the City’s professional staff - or issue experts - for workshops that allow for more casual discussion and the kind of back-and-forth that provides specific information and general background for their consideration. Some other of the City’s departments - notably Community and Economic Development - also record their meetings and post the video.


Lakeland’s city government is an open book, which also publishes a blog and maintains an active and current Facebook presence.


It is typical of formal candidate questioning to use the past as reference. “What would you have done if you were a Commissioner when … ?” The objective is to hep define the candidate in order to predict future behavior. In addition, candidates are tested on general issues that have been part of the community’s interest or concern, again with an eye to guessing how they might behave if elected.


To begin with, these are issues that have already been decided, and, in some cases, not by the Commission but by the citizenship. Strong Mayor. Sale of Lakeland Electric. Charter revisions. It might be illuminating to know what the candidates think but it is not relevant.

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Questions that focus on the present and immediate future can often help clarify the differences among the candidates, and it is their differences that will move voters to decide whom to elect.


South Florida Avenue road diet. Two in favor, two against. One of them may get the chance to formally vote on the success or failure of the year-long test, but we should presume they will be guided by public input.

COVID protocols. Until the pandemic can be considered “over” or “under control”, the Commission will find itself immersed in the complications associated with mask wearing, struggling businesses, and personal liberty versus community safety. The candidates are in the same situation and differ with each other.


A major airline. The Commission is still considering a revenue guarantee that might entice a major airline to bring regular flights to the city. None of the four offered any support and the current Commission is still wrangling over the size and shape of such a guarantee. This is a budget issue and an economic development issue that will be informed by the city staff, industry professionals, and qualified airline companies. It is also a fairly straightforward return-on-investment calculation.


The City-owned fiber-optic network drew some attention with the general view that the City ought not to be in the internet business.

Cleveland Heights, and by extension the RP Funding Center and other city operations that do not pay for themselves. Flowers in the medians, brick sidewalks, landscaping, parks, and many other features of the city’s effort to make - and keep - Lakeland the kind of place that people want to live and work in do not “pay for themselves”, directly. At its most fundamental level, this is all akin to combing your hair and dressing appropriately to attract the object of your desire: a job, a partner, a good seat at a good restaurant. Lakeland seeks new residents and new employers who will add to the city’s strength and appeal. All of the candidates spoke about the need for high-skill, high-wage jobs. If we build it, they will come. Success will result in higher property values which translate into added tax revenue.


Body cams for LPD. The divided panel of candidates saw issues - legal and financial - that complicate the simple notion that a video record of police activity is superior to a written report or the conflicting views of eyewitnesses. Eventually, the Commission will have to decide which concern - public (and police) safety, law, or money - will sway them.

Minority-owned business and their community. And by this is meant the Black citizenship which still finds itself somewhat isolated from the larger community. All four expressed their support for increasing the City’s effort to recruit and engage Black businesses that are qualified to meet the City’s needs, and to add efforts to help ensure such qualifications.


Affordable housing and homelessness. These issues are intertwined and all of the candidates did what candidates do: they praised the City’s past efforts and suggested that “more can be done”.

The budget was mentioned in various answers and “wasteful” spending was targeted without any specifics. The budget details are available online. Dig in here: http://www.lakelandgov.net/departments/finance/annual-budget/ and here: http://www.lakelandgov.net/departments/finance/opengov/


So, what do you think?


That of course is the force that will set the course for our city. Candidates and Commissioners come and go. All of the current crop - and we - have lived through multiple mayors and various versions of the Commission. It is the citizenship that is constant and it is the citizenship that must row this boat. Voter ignorance and apathy - “I don’t know, and I don’t care” - are the failures that reduce the impact of citizens to an occasional trip to the polls to cast an uninformed vote for whichever name on the ballot means the most to them or simply has a familiar ring to it.


This won’t work.


Before you cast critical aspersions ensure that you know whereof you speak. The Commissioners - current and hopeful - are public servants and actively seek your input and response. They can’t hear you shaking your head. Call. Write. Email. Comment. Attend. Engage your citizenship. Listen. Learn. Vote!


All of the candidates promised an effort to reach out to us in all or most of the forms of communication we most commonly use. Of course they did. We asked them all how they would do that and urged them all to do more and better than has been done in the past. We specifically encouraged the use of tools like polling, email, and regular live encounters.


If they do it, will you come?


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