Lakeland votes again Tuesday. This time there’s only one item on the ballot: a City Commission race. One contestant says he brings a needed small-business owner’s perspective to City Hall. The other says he offers management and budget experience he gained as president of several colleges.
Michael Dunn, 46, owner of Vets Surplus on Florida Avenue downtown, says he will push “out-of-the-box” ideas and seek greater flexibility from bureaucrats who he feels apply one-size-fits-all solutions to businesses and homeowners. He’s a member of the city Code Enforcement Board who has made two previous unsuccessful runs for the commission.
Larry Durrence, 78, was a Florida Southern College history professor who became president of Polk Community College and subsequently executive director of the Florida Budget Tax and Reform Commission and interim president of five colleges. He was twice elected to the City Commission in the 1980s.
The two face each other in a Dec. 5 runoff election because no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote in a four-way contest Nov. 7. (Durrence got 46.4 percent of the vote, and Dunn got 37.2 percent.) Both of the candidates who were eliminated, Jorge Fonseca and Pablo Sologaistoa, have endorsed Durrence.
- Early voting takes place through Monday at the Polk County Operations Center, 930 E. Parker St., 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. There are also early voting locations in Bartow and Winter Haven.
- Election-day voting at your precinct Tuesday from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Here’s a list of precinct voting locations.
- Mail-in voting is still available for those who have already received their mail-in ballots, but the deadline to request a mail-in ballot has passed.
The race is non-partisan. The winner will be seated in January along with three first-time commissioners who won election last month: Bill Mutz, Scott Franklin and Stephanie Madden. They join current Commissioners Bill Read, Justin Troller and Phillip Walker.
When LkldNow polled candidates on issues before the general election, Dunn and Durrence agreed on many issues (Don’t sell Lakeland Electric; build more bike lanes; use incentives to attract industry; don’t relax enforcement of code violations) and they both publicly opposed the strong-mayor initiative.
But they disagreed on several issues:
Relocate the Confederate monument – Dunn favors a plan to keep the Confederate memorial in place but allow for other nearby monuments recognizing Lakeland’s history and diversity. Durrence said relocating the monument is better than to “allow that to divide our community at a time when we must learn from history and build a city which provides more equitable opportunity for all.” But he also said adding more monuments would be acceptable.
Create a city-owned Internet provider – Their differences here were more in attitude. Dunn was more enthusiastic, saying he likes the idea but urges a cautious implementation. Durrence said he approves the concept but would want a partnership with a private provider or long-term contracts from businesses.
Reduce Florida Avenue to three lanes in Dixieland – Dunn wants to see other road improvements to reduce traffic on Florida Avenue. Durrence wants to proceed with a recommended one-year test to see if the project would help Dixieland without hurting nearby neighborhoods.
In interviews, both candidates were asked to list their main issues. Here are some highlights.
- Enforcement flexibility: City officials should be able to use more discretion when issuing citations to avoid restrictive penalties, Dunn said. In one instance, a fast-food company that repaired a damaged menu board without getting new permits was issued a fine of $45,000 that was later reduced to about $3,000. In another case, he said he argued on the Code Enforcement Board that an organization should not have been cited with a sign violation when they placed inspirational words on a fence.
- Lakeland Electric: Repairs to Unit 2 at the McIntosh Power Plant signal the need for improved maintenance, he said. He speculated that some problems could be avoided if upper management listened more closely to middle management employees.
- Lakeland Utilities: The city could remove management duplication if it created a utilities department that combined electric, water, wastewater and solid waste, he said.
- Plasma arc gasification: Dunn would like the city to investigate a system he said is used in France and Japan that uses ultra-high heat to vaporize solid waste to create a synthetic gas to power electric generators.
- Arrestee transport: The Lakeland Police Department wastes valuable law enforcement time when officers transport arrested people to Bartow to be jailed, he said. Solutions include keeping arrestees in holding cells until detention personnel can pick them up, he said.
- Downtown beverages: As downtown transforms into a nightlife district, the city should investigate Savannah’s practice of letting people walk cups of alcoholic beverages between bars and restaurants within a defined area.
“You need to throw out out-of-the-box ideas and see which ones stick,” he said.
- Transportation funding: Creative thinking is needed to find more dollars for both public transport and roads, Durrence said. With Millennials and Boomers reducing automobile reliance and looking to move downtown, an improved bus system is a must, he said. He also recalled cooperation between Lakeland, Polk County, legislators and private developers decades ago to assemble funds to widen Harden Boulevard and build the Polk Parkway.
- Economic development: Attracting higher-wage jobs is important; if fewer people commute between here and Tampa or Orlando, they’ll be more likely to volunteer and strengthen local organizations, he said.
- Education: While schools aren’t the responsibility of city government, city leaders can persuade the business community to support education, he said. He cited his experience at colleges such as Polk Community College (now Polk State) that worked with business leaders in workforce development.
- Customer-centric policies: Leaders at City Hall talk about becoming more customer-centric, but many businesses feel the message hasn’t gotten to the workers who approve permits, Durrence said. As the city updates its development code, it should get input from developers, property owners and neighborhood organizations first. And work should be done to break down silos, much like the work he oversaw at the Florida Department of Revenue in the 1990s, he said.
- Lakeland Electric/energy: As the utility approaches decisions on fuel sources and retiring older generators, Durrence said, he’ll be able to apply knowledge he gained about coal while leading a college in Kentucky mining country and knowledge about the oil industry he picked up leading a college in Houston.
LkldNow also asked both candidates about what sets them apart from the other. Some highlights:
- “Age, obviously. Larry’s thinking about the way things used to be, whereas I’m thinking about what could be.”
- “Larry’s never been in private industry.” Dunn said the commission hasn’t had the perspective of a local retailer for years, and he can provide that. (Durrence counters that he has operated two small businesses and worked for an electronic parts wholesaler for six years.)
- Dunn said he’s probably thriftier. As evidence, he noted that when he took some campaign materials to Mail Processing Associates himself, a vendor was dropping off some of Durrence’s materials.
- “Michael talks about the sign ordinance (and) maybe the code enforcement process isn’t working as well as it should. The difference is I have been able to change those things. Not just having an idea, but knowing how to lead the commission to make the change.”
- “I have a lot of practical and formal knowledge that my opponent does not. You can look back at my public service going back to the 1980s including being a college president and see that i was able to get things done.”
- “Michael doesn’t have experience in economic develoment. Part of it is partnering with higher education and making workforce development possible.”
Dunn says he has been endorsed by these organizations:
- Business Voice of Greater Lakeland, the political arm of the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce
- West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association
- Lakeland Professional Firefighters Union
- Utility Workers Union of America
- West Central Florida Federation of Labor
Durrence says he has been endorsed by these organizations:
- Polk County Builders Association
- Lakeland Association of Realtors
As of reports submitted this week:
- Dunn had collected $28,410 in campaign contributions and spent $18,749.92. (View contributions and spending through Oct. 20.)
- Durrence had collected $45,540 in campaign contributions and spent $26,427.95. (View contributions and spending through Oct. 20.)
Dunn has relied more on large donations, while Durrence has pulled in a larger number of donors. An analysis earlier in the campaign showed Dunn’s average donation was $233 and Durrence’s was $193.
Dunn donors contributing the maximum of $1,000 per election are Business Voice Inc., David Duncan, Brandi Dunn, Cynthia Entrekin, Gregory Fancelli, Terry Greenwood, Amy Maloy, Kevin Maloy, Lakeland Firefighters, Ocain Inc. and West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association.
Durrence donors contributing the maximum of $1,000 per election are himself, Bruce Abels, Frank Buzzanca, the Clark, Campbell, Lancaster, Munson law firm and Lakeland Association of Realtors.
The city of Lakeland Communications Department offered each candidate an opportunity to record video answers to several questions. Here are the videos of Dunn and Durrence:
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