The Committee for a Strong Lakeland’s plan to overhaul Lakeland’s city government was given a sound thumping on Election Day. Sixty-nine percent of voters rejected the idea that a “strong mayor” should oversee the city’s administrative operations instead of the appointed city manager.
We believe the voters made the right call on Tuesday for two reasons, as we'll explain in a moment.
It's unknowable why the CSL's message failed to resonate on a broader scale. The group raised a mountain of cash — nearly $953,000, according to the final pre-election financial reports — that fueled a sophisticated, well-oiled campaign coached by one of the top political consultants in Tallahassee.
Perhaps the outcome can be attributed, in part at least, to how the opposition — the political committee dubbed No Boss Mayor, led by former city manager Gene Strickland and former city attorney Joe Mawhinney — was able to frame the issue.
More than 99 percent of CSL's funding came from one source: Gregory Fancelli, a Lakeland developer and grandson of Publix Super Markets founder George Jenkins. No Boss Mayor repeatedly questioned Fancelli’s overarching presence in the campaign, his money and his motives — to wit, suggesting that putting one elected official in charge of the bulk of city government really meant installing an elected official to serve one person or his clique.
That, of course, was not what Fancelli and his team desired or campaigned for. The CSL insisted time and again that Fancelli’s push was solely in the public interest — that he believed the city would be more efficient and better served by having a single authority, the mayor, who is directly accountable to the voters, calling shots over staff and policy, instead of working as “first among equals” and trying to secure a consensus of the seven-member commission.
While we don't see any sinister motive in the CSL campaign, we opposed the concept from the outset because we saw it as unnecessary.
Since taking over the city’s top staff post two years ago, City Manager Tony Delagdo’s work has been impressive — and part of his efforts have been dedicated to eradicating the influences that prompted the strong-mayor campaign.
It was a testament to Delgado, in fact, that some CSL supporters suggested he run as the strong mayor. Our point: if we already have him running the show, we don’t need to switch.
Our second reason for thinking the voters were right is based on the results in Lakeland’s other races Tuesday.
The mayor's race — won easily on Tuesday by Bill Mutz, the former owner of the Lakeland Auto Mall — featured four candidates who had never held elected office. It's understandable if many voters were uncomfortable handing those new powers to a political newcomer. Interestingly, Mutz was the only mayoral candidate to oppose the strong-mayor initiative.
Additionally, Stephanie Madden’s victory over incumbent Commissioner Jim Malless in the commission’s at-large contest ensured that the board will seat a solid bloc of freshmen next year. If Michael Dunn prevails over Larry Durrence — another No Boss Mayor leader who served on the commission in the 1980s, including a stint as mayor — in the Southwest District run-off next month, the board will feature a majority of first-time elected officials.
Loading up a brand new mayor with new duties and responsibilities, while simultaneously seating so many newcomers, would make for a long learning curve for all involved. Better that all of them, including the new mayor, go through those growing pains together in a system familiar to city staffers and their constituents.
The strong mayor idea was crushed, and Fancelli says he's done. But that doesn’t mean it's dead. Many prominent local movers and shakers supported it. At some point, as Lakeland grows, the concept might be revisited. For the sake of the city’s immediate future, however, we’re glad voters left no doubt which system they prefer.