Reading Time: 5 minutes
Written by Chrissanne Long | October 9, 2017
Where did this “Strong Mayor” idea Come from?
In 2013, Lakeland was caught off guard by a scandal that drew national attention, and resulted in several months of embarrassing discussions, and a long, drawn out impasse in our city government.
This post is not to recount the history of that scandal —a Google search will provide you with all the information you need to better understand how we arrived at this point. Instead, my goal is simply to share my observations from my perspective of that time, as an engaged, and passionate citizen with a singular agenda:
To bring about economic growth and progress though collaboration and attention to the greatest assets we have in this city – the people.
When the police scandal was brought to light, in 2013, I had a role as a paid social media consultant for the Wiggs for Mayor campaign. It was my first “inside” look at the way our city is run, and, at the time, I was uneducated about the system of government that we have had in place in Lakeland since 1922. The Council-Manager system of government, as we are all learning now, is one in which we are led by a commission and a mayor, all holding equal power, with their votes being counted equally. If you’re still fuzzy about the differences between the two systems, you can read the definitions here: http://www.nlc.org/forms-of-municipal-government
When the 50+ page report was released in June of 2013, outlining all the various cases of misconduct and poor decisions, I along with many other citizens, read the document with growing angst and concern for the situation in our city. We discussed this on social media, many people wrote letters to the editor, and we waited for the commission to act.
At that time, it seemed that the commission was stuck – not because of the form of government, or anything else, but because they could not agree. I don’t think a Strong Mayor form of government could have changed that.
As time went by, we realized that our commissioners were not going to make the decisions that most of us felt would be appropriate. Personally, I thought swift action to remove Lisa Womack would have resolved the prolonged issues that were brought to the surface between Womack and our then State Attorney, Jerry Hill. But the commission could not make that decision —only the city manager has the authority to fire the Chief. And yet, there was no effort from the commission to encourage this decision, nor a decision to remove Doug Thomas. The commission—under the current charter—can only fire 2 key staff members: the City Manager and the City Attorney.
Because they couldn’t come to consensus, they did nothing. And meanwhile, the citizens grew more and more frustrated.
It would have been a tough decision —one that no one would want to find themselves having to make. But that’s the thing about leadership: Being a leader is not about whether we’re going to agree with (and keep) our friends, but whether we’re doing what is best for those we serve. If a friend expects anything else from a leader, that’s not friendship.
Because the commission was unable to come to consensus on this issue, and the issue dragged on for what seemed an eternity, the discussion and ultimately the Strong Mayor initiative emerged.
Leading us out of a Rut
In 2014, when Howard Wiggs was elected as Mayor, I watched as these issues with Police Chief Womack and Doug Thomas dragged on through the months immediately after the election, there was tension on the dais I could only describe as a fierce loyalty to the preceding leader that played itself out in a divided commission, on many issues, not just as they related to Womack/Thomas, but also how they related to the day-to-day business.
Chief Womack resigned her post in February of 2014, and Chief Larry Giddens was promoted later that year. In September of 2015, Doug Thomas resigned. Tony Delgado accepted the role of City Manager on January 4, of 2016, and served as our interim city manager while the necessary actions were taken to decide that Tony Delgado would be offered that position permanently. The work that Chief Giddens and Mr. Delgado have performed in their new positions has been exemplary.
They are both loved and respected – both meriting this admiration because of their commitment to leading and learning from the experiences of the past. Through this difficult phase, we realized what can happen when we have leaders in these roles that are not in sync with our community. We understand, now more than ever, how valuable the people in these two positions (Chief and City Manager) are to the efficient and effective leadership and management of our city.
Since Giddens and Delgado have found themselves in these new roles, I believe nearly everyone would agree that things are consistently changing for the better in this city. From my personal view, there has been an immense relief of the stagnation that existed on the commission in that 2-year period.
Time to Lead
What we need now, is EFFECTIVE leadership. We don’t need a strong mayor. We need leaders who will make the hard decisions, and listen to each other and to the voters. We need a dais that stands up for what is best for the community, and will do the hard work required to listen to what the people are asking.
I think we are getting closer to that today. And a change in the charter is not necessary, at least not right now.
I believe the right decisions are being made and I believe there has not been enough time for us to see —again, with fresh eyes—what happens when EFFECTIVE leaders are able to lead within the council-manager system of government.
This November, we have an open seat for a new mayor, and potentially 3 new seats for candidates for commission, as Commissioner Don Selvage and Edie Yates have completed their terms and are not running for re-election, and Commissioner Malless’s seat is opposed by new candidates. This means there could potentially be 4 new leaders positioned to take us to the next level as a city.
Emerging Leaders Keeping Momentum
If we vote to change the charter, in favor of a Strong Mayor, not only do we not allow these new leaders to show us why this form of government has worked for so many years, we also run the risk of losing momentum.
We will invariably lose our city manager, and other key staff members and the existing staff will be required not only to adjust to an entirely new class of commissioners and new mayor, this transition will take place all while staff must figure out a new system for running the city.
I am one who welcomes change, embraces progress and looks to find new ways to improve our world. But I am not in favor of this change. Not today. I believe we need to focus on what really matters – building new leaders, and coming together as a community.
Building Trust and Transparency
Today, we have the duty to ourselves and the future leaders of our community to continue to learn from the lessons of our recent past, and we must encourage these new leaders to work diligently to prevent that stagnation and ineffective government from happening again. I believe we will be able to look back in 4 years and see that the charter was written by wise leaders and that we are a strong city, powered by strong and wise citizens who believe in the power of the people, not in a change that will put the power into a single person’s hands.
In the next 4 years, I believe we will see more effort to listen, to engage and to come to consensus – not because of a change in our charter, but because we learned from history, and this new generation of leaders wants to bring accountability, transparency, trust and efficiency back to our government. We owe them, and ourselves the chance to see this through.
On November 7, we have the opportunity to vote on this new generation of leaders, and, we also have the opportunity to vote to keep our current form of government in place, to leave the power of our future in the hands of ALL of the leaders we choose to represent us.
Vote No to Amend Lakeland’s Charter. Vote No to change to a Mayor/Commission Plan with the Mayor as Chief Executive.
Note: This post is written by Chrissanne Long, a registered voter in Lakeland, FL. This post is not a paid endorsement. It reflects the personal opinions of the author and owner of BeAwesomeDaily, an independently owned and managed site, with no connection to the No Boss Mayor campaign. If there are any questions about this post, or requests for comment, please contact chrissanne (at) maximizedigital.com
Also published on Medium.