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It's not "them", it's us

Let us introduce you to the “Lakeland Business Community”, whose pronouns (with apologies to our LGBTQ friends) are: “they” and “them”, as in “they are trying to control us”, and “we can’t let them”.

In every local election cycle a slightly disgruntled segment of the citizenship rolls out the notion of a small, powerful cabal of Lakeland elites who will press their influence to make sure the winners are “business friendly”.

Editor’s note: Please forgive all the quotation marks, but they are used to indicate the code words that these critics toss around like bait.

With the rarest exceptions, no one actually names names. When you ask who is trying to control us, the answer is simply “them”, or you know who “they” are. When you ask how that control will be - or has been - manifested, you get blank stares.

To begin with … wait, we don’t really know where to begin, but let’s try this:

The Lakeland City Commission is made up of seven honorable citizens who pledge to hear and understand the needs and ambitions of the more than 100,000 residents who live and work here, to take into account as many as possible, and to exercise fiscal and communal responsibility while doing it.

And while doing it in the public eye, not behind closed doors or at secret meetings with secret handshakes. Everything is on the record thanks to Florida’s “sunshine law”.

The Commission’s primary mission is to establish an annual budget, set property tax rates, and approve land use. There are, of course, many other matters that come to their attention, but this forms the core of their duty.

Commissioners are informed by a staff of professionals with credentials in accounting, economic development, transportation, infrastructure, land management, utilities, technology, public safety, and personnel, who answer directly the City Manager who, along with the City Attorney, answers to them. They are the only two city employees the Commission can hire or fire - or “control”.

Each of the Commission members is but one of seven and and has but one vote, which can allow one to dissent but not to decide. Ask Justin Troller.

Dissenters must make their argument in public meetings, along with the public, who may persuade commissioners to reconsider whatever they are considering.

This is how representative governing is intended to work.

The more significant the issue, the more attention it draws from the interested and affected parties, sometimes filling the commission chamber to overflowing. This too is how representative governing is intended to work.

So, now back to the “Lakeland Business Community” and its role in shaping our city’s agenda, and the argument about whether it should or not. Of course it should. Who else? The “Lakeland Business Community” is the community. Without the thousand or so large and small businesses, Lakeland would not be a community at all but merely a commune.

Jobs, services, activities, tax revenue, and quality of life are the very purposes of the people who invest their time and treasure to create and maintain the city’s overall prosperity. What “they” do, and have done, is to help make Lakeland the place you want to live and work. And while it may seem that their influence is disproportionate, the reality is that each member is just one voter, just like you.

This year’s election season offers a timely example. Commissioner-at-large, Stephanie Madden has been returned to office without opposition, but before that was the official result, she prepared for full-on campaign by collecting nearly $25,000 in contributions from some of Lakeland's most prominent citizens along with dozens of those whose names you might never have heard. It would not be a stretch to consider her a favorite of the business community, which might have also contributed to her astonishing victory in 2017 when she handily defeated an incumbent and three other challengers without a runoff!

She and her husband own a local business and are certainly business friendly. But Ms. Madden is community friendly as well, as illustrated by her use of her single vote to create a required super majority to authorize the removal of the controversial Confederate monument from Munn Park to Veterans Memorial Park.

We have seen other less fraught but no less important issues come to a head, and then to a thoughtful resolution, during the Commission’s consideration, as a direct result of citizen engagement. A Fire Fee, a cell tower, a day care center, a too-tall apartment building, and the safety of the city’s signature swan population all drew neighbors and business interests together to find accommodation.

This is how representative governing is intended to work.

But it won’t work without citizens who will challenge its assumptions and work within its structure to achieve positive outcomes that provide the most benefit for all concerned. Do your part. Engage your citizenship. Your vote on November 2nd is just your first step. Get ready by being informed.


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