The Fancelli Effect


Money talks, but it doesn’t listen.


For almost the entire history of politics and elections, citizens and commentators and thinkers have fretted over the outsized role of money in the equation and how to mitigate it without trampling freedom.


Since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC the fretting has gotten more intense. The ruling effectively freed labor unions and corporations to spend money on electioneering communications and to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates.


In his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the Court's ruling represented "a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government.”


To some, the Supreme Court and the country’s large and politically powerful corporations operate at a safe distance from the small towns and cities that most of us live in.


But the effect can reach all the way to local elections and seeks the same result: outsized influence. And although the actual influence is often subtle, the effect distorts the process and adds an element that brings no value to the community.


Like most such entities, the Lakeland City Commission is a non-partisan set of honorable citizens who intend to serve the citizenship with equity and consideration. Each is only one of seven, and the law prohibits contact and communication between them outside of the public view. And while each of them brings their own perceptions and perspective to their mutual deliberations, it isn’t really likely that one would hold outsized sway over the other six.


This does not deter those who seek the influence. And their right - and duty - to be actively engaged in the City’s proceedings should not be impinged or maligned. In fact, it works better when such activity is open and obvious.


What it should do is generate interest and curiosity. What do “they” want? And why? Whose interests are to be served?


Gregory Fancelli is, by his own description, a part-time resident of Lakeland. His mother, Julie, has a home here. Both are heirs to the Publix fortunes.


Mr. Fancelli buys and sells real estate and advocates effectively for historic preservation. He also takes an active - and expensive - interest in the City’s management and government. In 2017, he spent nearly $1,000,000 campaigning for a change to the City Charter, favoring a “strong mayor” system rather than the established council-manager form, which dominates the small cities like ours all across the country. The measure was soundly defeated.


This year, in the special election held to fill the commission vacancy created by Scott Franklin’s successful run for the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Fancelli offered his support to Steve Frankenberger and, by virtue of the Citizens United ruling, did so to the tune of $10,000, ten times the amount permitted for individuals, and more than twice the amount contributed by all others - not including the candidate - combined.


It would be fair to ask what Mr. Fancelli wanted.


Mr. Frankenberger finished third in the field of four and almost immediately offered his endorsement to Dr. Shandale Terrell who garnered the most votes but not enough for an outright win, setting up a runoff with Mike Musick. The other candidate, Ken Post, also endorsed Dr. Terrell.


One might have reasonably expected Mr. Fancelli’s support to follow the lead of his first candidate of choice and get behind Dr. Terrell’s candidacy. That’s not what happened. Mr. Musick became the beneficiary of Mr. Fancelli’s largesse, also to the tune of $10,000 with additional contributions from his friends and family.


It would be fair to ask what Mr. Fancelli wants.


In the run-up to the general election, several public forums were held to bring the candidates and their views to the public for evaluation. Many questions were pertinent to the activity and authority of the Commission while many seemed intended to define the candidates by their philosophy and political persuasion.


The answers to such questions often help voters decide by identifying the candidate who is most aligned with their own philosophy and political persuasion. This can result in citizens leaving the business of the City to someone else rather than remaining engaged and actively involved themselves


The questions that were not asked apply to the area of influence most dominated by the Commissioners, as opposed to the City Manager and his staff, who tend to operations and budget and personnel.


It is land use, and its impact and implications, where commissioners hold the most sway and which usually generates the most interest and attention from residents, and builders, and developers. In many cases, a determined commissioner can successfully argue in favor or against a recommendation from the staff regarding zoning changes, housing proposals, cell towers, and historic preservation among others. That commissioner need only persuade three others to form a majority.


It is not uncommon for such requests to generate split decisions. And while it all happens in public meetings, it can be hard to determine what particular influence a given commissioner is responding to, although it has seemed for the most part that the will of the most affected community is strongest.


Mr. Fancelli clearly has a vested interest in land use policy and decisions. In fact, we all do of course. Would you like to have a cell tower, or a daycare, or 100 apartments next door? Probably not. And the combined voices of those in “the line of fire” are the most important.


Is Mr. Fancelli seeking outsized influence?


Good question. Ask him. And ask Mike Musick if he thinks so.


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And vote on Tuesday, May 4th.