Commission Tweaks Strong Mayor Ballot Wording

City commissioners played editor this morning, tweaking the wording voters will see when they vote Nov. 7 on whether to change the system of city government to strong mayor. The edits include changes sought by both sides of the contentious issue.

The commission spent several hours over two meetings reviewing ballot language written by City Attorney Tim McCausland, who told commissioners the summary can be no longer than 75 words and has to inform voters while not misleading or trying to persuade.

The main points of contention today were how to describe how the strong mayor proposal would affect term limits and oversight of Lakeland Electric.

The strong mayor issue is going to voters because Committee for a Strong Lakeland collected sufficient signatures from registered voters on a petition seeking a vote. If approved by a majority of voters in November, Lakeland’s form of government would change from one in which the administration is run by a city manager who reports to elected city commissioners to one in which an elected “executive mayor” runs the city administration.

Term limits

The commission followed a suggestion by an attorney representing Committee for a Strong Lakeland to change the wording from “expanding” term limits to “modifying” term limits.

The word “modifying” is neutral, Tampa attorney Ben Hill told commissioners.

That argument appealed to Mayor Howard Wiggs, who said it implies to voters who study the ballot language prior to the vote that they need to “do their homework.”

But other commissioners, including Edie Yates, objected, saying the term lacks clarity, especially for people who see it for the first time when voting.

McCausland cautioned against the term “modifying,” saying the word implies term limits “are going up or down, but they’re not going down. So that approach is misleading.”

Representatives of No Boss Mayor, a group that organized around opposition to the strong mayor proposal, said it prefers that the ballot language say the term of mayor is “undefined.”

The reason? The rewrite of the City Charter being proposed by the strong-mayor group does not specify the length of the mayor’s term, according to former City Attorney Joe Mawhinney.

For that reason, several commissioners questioned McCausland on why his recommended ballot language referred to a term limit of eight years.

McCausland noted that the strong-mayor charter proposal calls for a limit of two terms or eight years, whichever is greater. “I said eight years because I know what years are; I don’t know what a term is.”

He added that a persuasive argument can be made that the Florida Constitution calls for four-year terms except when state law specifies a different term.

Mawhinney pointed out that city charters approved by the state Legislature specify six-year terms for elected officials in the Disney-area Reedy Creek and Bay Lake communities.

But McCausland countered that those were the kind of exceptions under state law that were envisioned by the Florida Constitution.

Commissioners say they find it hard to say whether the strong-mayor proposal expands or limits term limits because it takes a different approach than the current city charter:

  • The current charter limits an officeholder to no more than 12 years on the City Commission or as mayor and to 16 years combined as city commissioner and mayor.
  • The Committee for a Strong Mayor proposal maintains the 12-year limit for commissioners but adds up to two terms as mayor, meaning a maximum of 20 years (or more if you believe a mayoral term could be more than four years.)

Lakeland Electric

Former City Commissioner (and current candidate) Larry Durrence, representing No Boss Mayor, said the ballot language understates the mayor’s role with Lakeland Electric. The version proposed by McCausland says: “Mayor becomes Chief Executive with authority over City operations and employees, except Lakeland Electric.”

While the city charter proposed by strong-mayor proponents gives the City Commission authority to hire, fire and supervise the head of Lakeland Electric, the commission is barred from running day-to-day operations and the mayor would oversee many city departments that support the utility, Durrence said.

He suggested changing the wording from “Lakeland Electric” to “Lakeland Electric’s manager.”

The City Commission went along with that recommendation.

A motion by Commissioner Justin Troller included the change in Lakeland Electric wording and also changed the phrase “expanding overall elected officials’ term limits, limiting Mayor to 8 years” to “modifying elected officials’ term limits, limiting Mayor to two terms.”

The motion passed 4-3. Voting in favor were Jim Malless, Don Selvage, Troller and Wiggs. Opposed were Bill Read, Phillip Walker and Yates, all of whom said they were uncomfortable with the change from “expanding” to “modifying” term limits.

After the vote, Troller acknowledged that both sides were less than happy with the outcome but encouraged them to spend their money advocating their position with the public, not challenging the city in court.

McCausland said he would incorporate the commission’s word changes into the ballot summary and ensure it comes in at 75 words or fewer.

APRIL 26 UPDATE: Here is the updated wording McCausland sent to interested parties on April 24:

Should Lakeland change its government to a Mayor-Commission Plan; where Mayor becomes Chief Executive with authority over City operations and employees, except Lakeland Electric’s Manager, with veto power over Commission’s legislative actions; Commission can override Mayor’s veto with 2/3 vote; changing Commission’s governing authority to legislative authority; eliminating City Manager; creating Chief Administrative Officer serving at the pleasure of the Mayor; modifying elected officials’ term limits, limiting Mayor to two terms; creating additional Commissioner?

View video of today’s City Commission meeting; the discussion of the ballot language begins at 1:46:35.

Also at the City Commission meeting

Here’s a look at other activity from this morning’s meeting, seen through Twitter posts.