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Lakelanders To Vote On Strong Mayor Change

Robin Sussingham

Lakeland voters will soon decide  on whether to change their form of government, and the heated campaign has pitted the grandson of Publix founder George Jenkins against  city leaders and establishment.

Political signs lining busy highways and quiet residential streets  tout "No Boss Mayor"  or "Yes for a People's Mayor." Those ads target Lakeland residents, who have an historic decision to make. Voters currently elect a city commission, which then appoints a city manager as chief executive. If they vote to change the city charter, the elected mayor  would become a "strong" mayor -- meaning he or she  would become the chief executive, in charge of the city staff.

Critics of the change -- who call themselves "No Boss Mayor" --  say things are working fine in Lakeland right now. There's a mayor, but he's one member of the city commission, and the title is mainly ceremonial.

Former Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields has been campaigning against the change to a strong mayor. Fields says it's just too risky to put that much power in one person.  "If you have a good person in that office wielding that power, you're okay," Fields says. "But since that person can only serve two terms at most, what do you get the next cycle?"

Fields and other opponents of the charter change say that the current commission/manager form of government offers greater public access to power, since anyone can speak to commissioners at their meetings. And the commission -- which Fields compares to a corporate board of directors --  can fire the city manager, so the manager must be accountable to the commissioners.

But those pushing for a strong mayor say that access to power is now granted mainly to insiders, and they argue that  the most powerful position in the city should be an elected position, not an appointed one.

Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the strong mayor effort,  is a political science professor at Florida Southern College. He says a strong mayor  would be able to get more done. "One of the main problems that we've encountered over the years is the unwillingness of the commission to take decisive action on much of anything," says Anderson. He says bureaucracy has ballooned under the the current form of government.

"It's come to the point where if you want to do anything here, if you want to change anything here, you have to go through an impossible amount of red tape," Anderson says. "The commission has done absolutely nothing to stop the growth of the bureaucracy." Further, Anderson says, an elected mayor would have to be more responsive to populations of the city that have been under-served in the past.

But, as often happens in politics, the contest has veered away from simply debating the merits of the different forms of government.

Strong Mayor advocates warn that under the current form of government,  powerful business interests might decide to sell  its utility,  Lakeland Electric.

Gow Fields calls that a scare tactic.  "There was an effort by some business people in this community to make it easier to sell Lakeland Electric in 2011. That was resolved and put to bed in 2012.  Having a strong mayor or this current form of government doesn't change anything about the charter requirement for the sale of Lakeland Electric."

In fact, Fields says it would be almost impossible to sell the utility. It would take the vote of two-thirds of all of Lakeland's registered voters to sell Lakeland Electric -- and that's the kind of turnout that doesn't happen even for presidential elections.

The strong mayor opponents, meanwhile,  are focusing their attacks on Gregory Fancelli.

Fancelli is the grandson of Publix founder George Jenkins. He is almost single-handedly funding the  strong mayor initiative, contributing nearly $400,000.

Those contributions have led opponents to charge that a strong mayor would be bought and paid for by Fancelli, and in mailings and on Facebook say that "Lakeland is not for sale."

Fancelli says two-thirds of his contributions were for legal fees to get the strong mayor petition on the ballot. "The city has fought this tooth and nail, all the way to the end," he says. "The conversation of the past few months has always been about my motives. But to fight it like that... I've looked at all the other cities that have made the transition, and I've never seen a fight like that. So my question is, what are their motives to fight it like that?"

Fancelli says he sees this as a way to help the community flourish, and says he's continuing the Jenkins family's long tradition of philanthropy in Lakeland.

 "It's really about creating equal opportunity for anyone, regardless of what their connection is. If they have a good plan, if they work hard, if they're committed, they should be able to succeed in Lakeland. And that is not the case right now."

Lakeland voters are also electing a new mayor this year -- who won't know if he's a strong or weak one until after the election.


Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.
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