Lakeland voters today swept three political newcomers into office while decisively defeating a measure that would have changed the form of city government to a strong-mayor format.
When Bill Mutz — who won 72 percent of the vote in a four-man race — becomes mayor in January, it will be under the current system, in which the mayor serves as chair of the City Commission and represents the city in ceremonial functions. The appointed city manager will remain the city’s chief executive.
In one of the biggest surprises of the evening, Stephanie Madden unseated incumbent Jim Malless without a runoff in a five-way race. Insurance executive Scott Franklin outpolled civic volunteer Sandy Toledo for Southeast District seat. Larry Durrence and Michael Dunn face off in a Dec. 5 runoff for the Southwest District seat.
Voter turnout was 23 percent, with the strong mayor ballot initiative attracting more votes than any of the candidate races.
A hard-fought and expensive fight over Lakeland’s form of government that frayed relationships ended today when an overwhelming majority of voters (69 percent) said they want to stick with the current system.
The effort to change Lakeland’s system of government from council-manager to strong mayor began with a series of high-minded workshops in 2015 and ended in rancorous attacks from both sides as today’s vote drew closer.
The Committee for a Strong Lakeland — led by Bruce Anderson, a Florida Southern College political science professor, and Gregory Fancelli, an investor and Publix heir — drafted an update to the City Charter to change the form of city government. In their plan, the chief executive of city government would be a mayor directly elected by the public instead of a city manager appointed by city commissioners.
The committee got the issue on the ballot by collecting petition signatures from more than 6,000 Lakeland voters.
Their main arguments: A mayor elected by the public is more responsive and can act more quickly and decisively. An elected mayor would be able to set clear policy goals that would be outlined during election campaigns, the group says.
The strong-mayor effort met opposition from an organization called No Boss Mayor, let by former high-ranking city officials, including former City Manager Gene Strickland, former City Commissioner Larry Durrence and former City Attorney Joe Mawhinney.
The No Boss group maintains the current system works well and says the proposed charter gives too much power to one person while diminishing the power of the City Commission.
They also raised the specter of a wealthy individual “buying” a mayor, noting that Fancelli provided most of Strong Lakeland’s $952,275 war chest.
Fancelli responded that members of the George Jenkins family have always been generous in supporting causes they believed would benefit Lakeland, and Strong Lakeland pointed out that the largest donor to No Boss Mayor is the Washington, D.C.-based International City and County Managers Association.
Mutz, the former owner of Lakeland Automall, captured 72 percent of the vote in a four-way race for mayor.
He will be the first mayor who had not previously held elective office since Lakeland voters began directly electing the mayor in 1988. Previous Mayors Frank O’Reilly, Buddy Fletcher and Gow Fields and current Mayor Howard Wiggs had all been city commissioners before running for mayor.
Among the other candidates:
- Christopher Diaz, 33, a former law enforcement officer and current small business owner, polled 12 percent
- James Green, 22, a senior at Florida Southern College, polled 6 percent.
- Patrick Jones, 52, a Lakeland Regional Health technician and heavy-metal disc jockey, polled 9 percent.
Mutz was the only candidate who attracted significant campaign contributions (he raised $64,650) and the campaigns stayed largely positive.
CITY COMMISSION: SOUTHWEST DISTRICT
The four-way race included a former city commissioner, a former candidate and two new-comers.
- Michael Dunn, 46, who owns Army-Navy Vets Surplus, is making his third run for the commission. Campaign contributions: $28,110. Vote tally: 37 percent.
- Larry Durrence, 78, was a Florida Southern history professor when served on the commission in the 1980s and later was president of Polk Community College. Campaign contributions: $40,442. Vote tally: 46 percent.
- Jorge Fonseca, 45, is the chief administrator of the Romero Medical Plaza. Campaign contributions: $23,939. Vote tally: 12 percent.
- Pablo Sologaistoa, 28, works in business development for a sod company and was previously development director of Anchor House. Campaign contributions: $732. Vote tally: 4 percent.
CITY COMMISSION: SOUTHEAST DISTRICT
The only two-way race on the ballot presented a contrast between a candidate known for military and business leadership and one who has won national recognition for her volunteerism.
Scott Franklin, 53, rose to the position of president of Lanier Upshaw, an insurance company, after serving 14 years as a U.S. Navy carrier jet pilot. He won with 65 percent of the vote.
Sandy Toledo, 70, is a former teacher whose charitable work with several organizations was recognized by Oprah and who was a Lakeland Police Department volunteer of the year. She received 35 percent.
Toledo eschewed seeking money from big donors while Franklin drew $54,525, including the support of Lakeland First, a political action committee founded by business people involved in economic development.
CITY COMMISSION: AT-LARGE SEAT
Jim Malless, a commercial Realtor and the only incumbent seeking re-election, lost with 25 percent of the vote. He drew four opponents:
- Stephanie Madden, a co-owner of Madden Branded Goods who has volunteered through the Junior League and her six children’s schools. She won with 51 percent of the vote.
- Laurel Pullo, a restaurant supervisor who wants to become a voice on the commission for working-class residents. She carried 4 percent.
- Ricky Shirah, who owns a towing business and got the most votes when he ran for the seat in 2013 but lost to Malless in a runoff. He carried 12 percent this time.
- Kathy Smith Barsotti, who owns Django and Friends Dixieland Emporium and has been critical of ties between commissioners and big business. She carried 7 percent.
The big money in the race has gone to Madden ($43,832) and Malless ($35,081). The race has been the most combative, with mailers sent by Lakeland First accusing Malless of flip-flopping on the strong mayor issue.