With just over six weeks left before Lakeland city election ballots are finalized, two incumbent city commissioners have no declared challengers and may breeze to re-election without opposition. Commissioner Sam Simmons, who was appointed to the position last fall and faces his first election, has drawn two challengers.
So far, Commissioner Chad McLeod is unopposed for a second term in his at-large seat, and Commissioner Bill Read is unopposed for a third term representing northeast Lakeland. This would be Read’s final four-year stint as a commissioner, under term limits spelled out in the City Charter.
The deadline for candidates to file for the nonpartisan Nov. 7 city election is noon Sept. 22. Typically candidates file preliminary papers with the City Clerk’s Office well before that date in order to begin fundraising.
Why this matters: City commissioners are elected to set policy for Lakeland’s municipal government and its $737 million budget on a multitude of issues that include police and fire protection, growth and development, transportation, recreation, and utilities — including water and electricity.
Simmons has picked up two opponents so far: Lolita Berrien and Guy LaLonde Jr. Both of them, along with Simmons, were among the eight applicants for the northwest Lakeland seat on the commission last year after then-Commissioner Phillip Walker resigned in connection with his unsuccessful run for the Florida House of Representatives.
Because less than two years remained in Walker’s term, the selection of the new commissioner was made by the City Commission rather than a special election, under changes to the City Charter that were approved by voters in 2021. Commissioners selected Simmons unanimously last October.
Berrien is a member of the city Planning & Zoning Board and former presiding chair of the Neighborhood Association Coalition. She has been an administrative assistant in Polk County public schools for 25 years and has been vice president of the Webster Park South Neighborhood Association.
LaLonde is a U.S. Navy veteran and Publix meat manager who owns Lakeland Moon Walk of Polk County Inc. and Under One Tent Events Inc. His volunteer work includes Relay for Life, United Way of Polk County and the Special Olympics of Polk County.
Simmons began his career as an accountant with the city of Lakeland and served as finance manager for the Lakeland Housing Authority before starting his own housing and financial services consulting firm in 2004. He served as president of the Webster Park South Neighborhood Association for 20 years and was the first president of the city’s Neighborhood Association Coalition. He also co-founded the Central Florida Business Diversity Council.
Watch for a LkldNow Voter Guide, including candidate profiles and Q & As. We plan to publish it prior to the beginning of early voting in October.
According to campaign finance reports filed with the City Clerk:
- Berrien, who filed her intention to run on July 4, has not had to file a financial report yet. Her first report is due on Friday.
- LaLonde, who filed his intention to run on April 4, has reported $15,750 in contributions, the majority of it from himself and companies he owns. Political figures donating to him include former Mayor Howard Wiggs and Becky Troutman, a Republican candidate for Polk County Commission. He has spent $9,360.
- Simmons, who filed his intention to run on March 27, has collected $500, which he loaned to his campaign, and spent $210.
Among the two incumbents:
- McLeod has raised $6,450, with donations of $500 each coming from local business leaders and lawyers: Wesley Beck, Jeffrey Chamberlain, David Hallock, William Harrell, Jack Harrell, Kevin Knowlton, Scott McBride and Cory Petcoff. Donations of $500 from non-Lakeland residents came from Franklin Coley, a Winter Park public relations executive, and Randy Larson, a Babson Park civil engineer. McLeod has spent $575.
- Read, who filed his intention to run in late April, has not reported any campaign contributions or expenditures yet.
It is not unusual to find Lakeland City Commission candidates elected without opposition. In fact, nine of the last 12 election cycles saw at least one person elected to the commission without opposition:
Elected to the Lakeland City Commission without opposition
- 2021: Stephanie Madden – second term
- 2019: Phillip Walker – third term
- 2017 – None. All four seats were contested
- 2015 – Bill Read – first term. Justin Troller – third term
- 2013 – Don Selvage – second term. Edie Yates – third term.
- 2011 – Justin Troller – second term
- 2009 – None. All four seats were contested
- 2007 – Gow Fields – third term. Glenn Higgins – second term
- 2005 – None. All four seats were contested
- 2002 – Glenn Higgins – first term. Dean Boring – second term
- 2000 – Jim Verplanck – first term
- 1998 – Tom Shaw – fifth term. Dean Boring – first full term
The City Commission has seven members, including the mayor, all of whom serve four-year terms. On years that the mayor is up for election, up to four races can appear on city ballots; there are up to three seats up for grabs in alternate election years.
Bruce Anderson, a political science professor at Florida Southern College, said he is not surprised by how frequently City Commission seats go uncontested. Some commissioners — he named current Commissioner Stephanie Madden as an example — are popular with voters and don’t generate the kind of anger that prompts election opponents.
He ruled out apathy as an explanation, noting that sometimes there are multiple candidates for the same office, such as the September 2017 election that saw four candidates each for mayor and one commission race, and five candidates for another commission seat.
But sometimes there are candidates who run to make a point or get their name before the public, even though they don’t expect to win, he said.
And sometimes candidates don’t draw meaningful opposition if they are perceived to have access to plentiful financial support via local business interests, Anderson said. In one recent example of the difference that support from a segment of the business community can make, McLeod’s 2019 contributions of nearly $55,000 were more than doubled by $60,250 from Lakeland First, a political action committee funded by 18 local businesses and individuals.
In addition, the City Commission is less likely than legislative races to draw candidates who are fired up about high-profile issues, he said, since city races are nonpartisan and the job is more about the nitty gritty of running a municipal government.
The current salary for Lakeland commissioners is $31,688 a year plus $1,800 expense allowance. Commissioners attend at least four meetings a month that typically take an entire morning, several day-long workshops during the year, assignments on various committees that usually meet during the daytime, make appearances at multiple community events and receive a heavy flow of emails and phone calls.
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