In preparation for the Jan. 15 City Commission special election, LkldNow sat down with each of the three candidates and asked them the same questions — some serious and some light-hearted. The idea is to give voters a chance to get to know each of the three candidates better. Here is a transcript of our interview with Bill Watts. (All interviews edited for clarity.)
While the race is citywide, the winner will represent the Southwest District of the city.
Bill Watts contact information:
Why do you want to be a city commissioner?
Why I want to run now is basically it’s my opportunity to give back. My kids are grown. They’ve been through the school system here in Polk County. One is away in college. One is just finished college. I have the time to do it. I work for a company that’s going to give me the time to do it. And right now it’s the perfect time for me to give back to Lakeland.
It’s not for the pay, is it?
No, it’s not for the pay.
What’s your top issue?
There’s a little bit of a disconnect between zoning, code enforcement, permitting, and maybe even impact fees in Lakeland. That make it a little difficult to start a business. And sometimes the process seems a little drawn out. I’m not really sure, I haven’t seen the analytics of the processes that are in place now. But I’d like to take a look at those and see if there’s any way we can streamline those.
But more importantly than that, the processes in place might be good ones, but maybe it’s the way they’re carried out. And I feel that there maybe could be a bit of a culture change in the way the city runs it. I think that some of our citizens feel there’s a little overreach by City Hall and we need to fix that and make them more customer oriented.
Do you have any specific proposals for economic development?
I think what we’ve done so far is pretty good. I believe that we really do need to take a little bit stronger look at how impact fees are handled. I know downtown handles it one way where a lot of this impact fees are waived versus, say, trying to open a new business in Dixieland, South Lakeland or North Lakeland. I think that’s something that could be looked at to make ease of doing business here a little bit better.
When people around Florida hear “Lakeland,” they think…
This is a growing community that is on the I-4 corridor right in between the larger cities of Tampa and Orlando. And I think the first impression that people get of Lakeland is that is a great small community that is a wonderful place to raise a family.
In three years, when people around Florida hear “Lakeland,” I want them to think…
I want them to think the same thing. We can’t lose touch of our roots and how the community is and how it’s great for raising families. And how it’s good to start a small business here.
But we need to expand on that. We need we need to take advantage of our location on the I-4 corridor. We need to give an alternative to people that want to open large businesses, small businesses, or even just to live here. Give them an alternative to Orlando and Tampa and have the services like those big cities have here in Lakeland to promote young urban professionals to live here. For people that commute back and forth from their homes to the airport to go travel about that Lakeland is really a great place to be.
When I want to show somebody what I like about Lakeland, I take them to…
I like to take them downtown.
When I came here in ’95, downtown was a completely different place than it is now. We had some pioneers that started businesses there. And that spurred growth instantly. We had older businesses that had been there forever, but then Molly McHughs opens up and a few other places. And now there’s a good mix of retail restaurants and bars. Just the way it’s kept up, the streets are clean, the trees are pretty. It’s a wonderful environment. I think it really reflects well on the city. Also, when you go around Lake Mirror, the architecture and the historical preservation of that area is fantastic.
People say city government needs to be more “customer-centric.” What one or two steps should be taken along those lines?
The zoning code enforcement and permitting — there might be a little bit more of a cultural fix to the problem. And that’s not to say that the city workers aren’t doing their job. They’re working hard. They have to earn their living just like everyone else. But I think a more customer-friendly attitude, and a more helpful spirit, is going to go a long way in helping our city grow.
How far should the city go in making its fiber network available to small businesses and residents?
It’s necessary for the growth of our community. Just like the highway systems were in the 1950s to connect communities or the railroads back in the 1800s. The new thing is global Internet connectivity, high speed internet connectivity, and absolutely I support it.
The biggest mistake made by city government in the last four years was …
I’m not really sure I know how to answer that question.
I think it’s easier for us to concentrate on the successes of our town than mistakes. And I think we’ve done more right decisions than wrong decisions. I believe that the way we’re trying to manage our growth and we’re moving forward on trying to be part of a greater community in Polk County has been wonderful.
So it’s really “greatest mistakes over the last four years.” I’m not really seeing it.
How could the City Commission have better handled the Confederate monument issue?
I think that the city commissioners, with the information that they had, the input they got from the citizens, they made the right decision. It was a very difficult one. And sometimes difficult decisions are hard to palate. So they did the right thing. Let’s move on.
Where are you most likely to be seen on a Saturday morning?
On a Saturday morning I will be in front of my computer, trying to get all my business ends tied up. And getting ready to watch a lot of college football depending on the season or getting ready to do things with my family.
What distinguishes you from the other two candidates?
I would like to say that I have a broad experience in business through my time doing IT work. When I did consulting and project management work for Fortune 200 companies managing budgets, anywhere from $500,000 to $10,500,000. And I think with that experience and my ability to go in and look at the analytics and come up with good solution that helps me. Another thing that helps me and differentiates me from the other candidates, I believe is owning and operating two small businesses in Lakeland.
And I know that the other candidates have spent a lot of time in Lakeland and have done a lot of good for the community. But I think that the business experience of owning, operating and, starting businesses and knowing the difficulties and pains for continuing those businesses give me a slight advantage over the other two candidates.
What’s your assessment of the other two?
The thing is, I can’t really say anything negative about the other candidates. Sarah’s work with the community, and her community efforts with Lakeland Vision, and some other things are outstanding, The passion that Shawn brings to the table is incredible. I like how he’s in touch with younger voters. I think that what I can do is bridge the gap between, say, a fiscal conservative model and a very socially liberal person, and bring more moderate progressive attitude towards City Hall so that we can try to please all our constituents. Give everyone a voice so to speak.
When I go to a coffee shop or a bar, I order…
Vanilla latte at a coffee shop
The city Communications Department recorded interviews with all three candidates. Here’s the one with Bill Watts: