Commission Updates: Police Protest, Vacancies, Voter Turnout

Lakeland city commissioners got updates this morning on a range of subjects, from a march planned for next weekend to protest police activities to the latest on  the searches for a new police chief and new assistant city manager.

Protest march

During today’s agenda preview session, Commissioner Philip Walker asked for an update on a march planned in protest of Lakeland Police Department officers shooting to death Michael Jerome Taylor, 17, in the crowded parking lot of Salem’s Gyros at Florida Avenue and Memorial Boulevard in the early morning of Dec. 26.

Police said Taylor was driving a car reported as stolen and as officers approached him, he speeded up the car and headed toward an officer. Video shows officers firing several shots into the side and back of the vehicle as it drove through the parking lot before coming to a stop.

City Manager Tony Delgado said that the Police Department and Parks and Recreation Department are working with organizers from the Winter Haven-based Poor and Minority Justice Association to provide a safe environment for the march, scheduled for Jan. 26.

The march is expected to start near Salem’s Gyros and More and head toward the Police Station downtown before ending at a rally and gathering on Myrtle Street, Delgado said.

He said he expects to learn more early next week as permit applications are filed.

Delgado also reported that staff attended a regularly scheduled community meeting of the Paul A. Diggs Neighborhood Association, and “obviously there was some concerns by the community and some angst about not having more information. We provided the best information we could with the understanding there is still a state attorney investigation and an administrative investigation ongoing.”

Voter turnout

City Attorney Tim McCausland asked commissioners to think about whether the cost-saving decision to combine some voting sites for Tuesday’s election to fill an open City Commission seat may have led to lower voter turnout.

“You had about 6,000 absentee ballots cast about 2,800 vote at the precinct,” McCausland said. “Historically, it has been closer to half and half.”

This was the first time precincts had been consolidated and “perhaps it led to confusion and people said forget it,” McCausland said. “Or it may be more of the continuing trend of people voting by mail rather than voting on the day of the election.”

Regardless, “it is troubling to us that the action we recommended may have led to lower voter turnout. We would never do that on purpose,” he said.

McCausland said he would bring up the issue later for commissioners to reconsider consolidating precincts in future elections.

Sara Roberts McCarley won more than 74 percent of the vote, defeating Bill Watts and Patrick Shawn Jones. Michael Dunn resigned from the seat after he was charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of a shoplifter at a downtown store he managed.

Two open positions

Delgado also updated the commissioners about his focus on finding internal candidates to fill the position of police chief following Larry Giddens’ announcement Jan. 7 that he is retiring Feb. 1 to take a position as head of security at Florida Southern College.

Giddens has been with the department for 34 years and became became interim chief in February 2014 and chief in March 2015.

“One of things Larry Giddens left us was a great police department,” Delgado said. “The concerns and challenges of some five years ago, I think, have been alleviated. He has been able, with his staff, to build a responsible, fair and transparent organization. We have been able to rebuild many of the concerns and relationships that had to be rebuilt.”

Delgado said that because of the cohesiveness of the department, he would like to maintain continuity and has been meeting with assistant chiefs, other staff and some members of the public with the goal of selecting a new chief from among internal candidates before Giddens’ last day.

Delgado said that he also is close to announcing the names of the top four or five candidates for the city’s No. 3 position, that of assistant city manager. The job has been open since Shawn Sherrouse was promoted to fill the No. 2 spot in the city as deputy city manager. That position opened up when Brad Johnson left early this summer for a position with Sarasota County.

Delgado said 300 applications came in for the assistant city manager position, and 125 met qualifications.

A panel has winnowed that down to the top four or five candidates.

Delgado said he expects to announce the names of the top candidates within days and bring them to Lakeland for interviews so that a selection can be made by the end of February.

United Way

Interim Commissioner Don Selvage, at his last meeting before McCarley is sworn in, gave a report about his work as chairman of the board of United Way of Central Florida.

This year’s goal is to raise $9.5 million and it appears over $10 million is coming in, he said.

“Interest is high in the tri-county area” and he pointed out that Lakeland-headquartered Publix is not only a large donor locally but is is No. 3 worldwide in corporate donations to United Way through its stores and employee donation.

“I never fully appreciated Publix’s efforts until I was on the board. They go after it. It is a Fortune 500 company but still among the likes of Wells Fargo, AT&T and Amazon, Publix is No. 3 in the world.”

Next meeting

Because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday, the City Commission’s next regularly scheduled meeting has been moved to Tuesday. It will start at 3 p.m. at City Hall.