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The eight people who want to be the next Lakeland city commissioner each told the current commissioners on Monday why they should be the one chosen to represent northwest Lakeland on the seven-member board. The person selected by the commission next Monday will fill out the remaining 13 months in the term of Phillip Walker, who resigned to run for another office.
Each person had 15 minutes to tell the commissioners about him or herself, particularly as they answered 16 questions the commissioners sent to them previously, along with asking any questions they might have.
The commission seat represents Lakeland’s northwest quadrant, which is west of Florida Avenue/U.S. 98N and north of the CSX railroad tracks. See a map of commission districts. The seat holder is required to have lived in the district for at least one year before taking office.
View a video of the entire 2-hour, 15-minute session here or at the end of this article.
Lolita 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 public schools for 25 years and has been vice president of the Webster Park South Neighborhood Association.
“My vision for Lakeland is to make a positive difference in Lakeland and the northwest district,” said Berrien. “My vision is to collaborate with the city commissioners who have a vision to be vibrant, innovative, constantly improving as they have a worldwide-class city.”
Two of the questions included what issue they find most interesting and an issue they feel needs to be dealt with.
“An issue that the City Commission deals with that I would find most interesting and why? I would say is the cost of housing, especially for single-parent homes with no transportation,” said Berrien. “An area I see that needs to be addressed is the annexation of public works septic tanks in the Lakeland area.”
And the commissioners wanted to know what Berrien would bring to the panel.
“What I bring to the commission is a positive, moral character with a passion to serve and to be a voice for the citizens in Lakeland as we reclaim and continue to be an All-American City,” Berrien said. “I should be selected if you are searching for a person who is concerned and aware of a positive reflection of the city, which includes but are not limited to diversity, growth, production and unity.”
Tracy Faison is a registered nurse who has been a business owner and president of Lake Gibson High Booster Club and Lakeland Storm Youth Football and Cheerleading. She is regional administrator for Pediatric Health Choice in Lakeland, Haines City and Daytona.
“My vision for the city, as well as the Northwest district, is to maintain order, to improve qualified life, i.e. bring more economical dollars, decrease youth and adult crime, also to decrease the homeless issues,” Faison said. “I think growth is wonderful. As long as you have the infrastructure. Growth in Lakeland is special. It’s between two metro cities.”
Faison said she brings a mixture of attributes to the table.
“I bring dignity, I bring humbleness, I bring compassion for our community,” she said. “I am self-motivated. I have the ability to work under pressure. I am also responsible and very efficient. I also have worked at the legislative level in health, but we always can divert that into receiving, as well.”
She asked the commissioners what they’re looking for in a candidate. Commissioner Chad McLeod said it is going to be difficult to find someone to fill Phillip Walker’s shoes after more than a decade in office and as someone who brings a wealth of experience and has an in-depth knowledge of the city’s and area’s history.
“We certainly vote on and discuss issues that are citywide,” McLeod said. “He knows the district, the residents, the community and has a heart and passion for that, and can also, I think, get up to speed on the issues that are before us — are coming to the commission in the next year.”
Commissioner Stephanie Madden said the person sitting in the Northwest district seat should speak for that community.
“The goal is to have seven who are a diverse group, who represent everyone,” Madden said. “And we know we need a majority to put things forward and we have a really hard, a lot of things that are mostly budgetary. But at the end of the day, I’d rather be one vote and lose and feel like my constituents were represented at the table.”
Daryl Forehand is a pastor, former correctional service consultant, and a previous president of the Lakeland Police Athletic League. He has served in the U.S. Navy and is currently pastor and diocesan bishop at Immanuel Temple Church and interim dean of W. L. Bonner College in Columbia, S.C. He has traveled the world extensively.
“My vision is to just gradually move into the position, to try to learn the position, to understand how to serve as a city commissioner and learn from the wealth of experience that’s currently on the board. So it is not so much my vision, but the vision to be a part of the team and to provide for all in cohesiveness in the absence of Phillip Walker,” Forehand said.
He said an issue that he is interested in solving is homelessness, but he added that recruitment and hiring should also be dealt with. He also talked about growth.
“I, like the mayor and the city commissioners, seem to be aggressive when it comes to strategic planning,” Forehand said. “I think you are trying to get ahead of the ball. So that is something that I would like to be a part of.”
He said he would bring chemistry, competence, character, and an ability to get along to the commission, in addition to a desire to be present for all meetings and finding solution to problems.
“Some people never showed up to the meetings,” Forehand said. “This is not a Jack in the Box raffle. They don’t show up for the meetings, but they put their names in for an office and never tried to see what the actual problem was.”
Guy LaLonde Jr.
Guy LaLonde Jr. 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.
LaLonde joked that he hadn’t had a job interview in about 36 years before diving into issues he sees that need to be tackled.
“We already have a strained infrastructure, not just affordable housing, affordable rent, but also technology, transportation, different growth aspects and not just northwest,” LaLonde said. “We all have the ability to attract better businesses, better technology businesses, better green space protection agencies, different things that reach out and catch me as a whole as individual. We have approximately 10 million people within 100 miles … We need to be seen by those people, to come up here, reside here, and help us grow up. We’re not going to be destroyed.”
LaLonde said he thinks of Lakeland as a brand, one that keeps a “small-town feeling.”
“I want to see some next-chapter ideas in reference to Munn Park since the removal of the statue,” LaLonde said, adding that the center of the park remains bare. “I think we need more public-private partnerships. We long for more public and private partnerships to help stimulate what’s going on here in Lakeland.”
And he recognized that this is a challenging time, with electric rates increasing, land-use changes, issues with the budget, and people concerned about their taxes.
He said he has lived in Lakeland for more than four decades, can work well with others, respects people’s unique perspectives, likes the diverse commission and calls himself a servant leader.
Veronica Rountree is a community health services advocate whose community activities include president of the Neighborhood Association Coalition, chair of the Code Enforcement Board and Police Advisory Board. She is a community advocate for Peace of Mind Community Healthcare Services and chairwoman of Habitat for Humanity’s board of directors.
Rountree had to contend with some construction noise as she gave her answers.
“A lot of positives have happened, a lot of changes have occurred in that area, but we need to continue to expand on those efforts,” Rountree said. “As the city of Lakeland expands and prospers, I want to make sure that northwest area is included with equal representation and resources.”
She said she would bring a “boots-on-the-ground” approach to the job.
“I am one to go out in the community. I walked the community – they call me ‘Walkin’ Lawton,’” Rountree said, referencing the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who walked the length of the state during his first campaign for the U.S. Senate. “I go and knock, knock, knock on doors and let your community know what’s going on. When I hear about food programs going on, I go to the elderly and give them that information. I take them when they need it to doctor’s appointments … When they don’t have a way, they call me. And I have a love for the community.”
She said she applauds the City Commission limiting public comments during meetings to five minutes because she’s seen what it’s like at Code Enforcement Board hearings were speakers have an unlimited amount of time to speak.
“The only issue that I feel I can go out and educate and encourage other people is don’t just sit back and guess what you think is going on. Come to commission meetings. Come and sit there. If you need to get on the agenda, come. You can express yourself in a positive way … bring something that is truthful to the committee. And I would be willing to talk to them and educate them on those things that will give them courage to come and be a part of this, also.”
Rountree said she is well-educated, available for all meetings, and has a love for the people of Lakeland.
Ricky Shirah is a former Publix truck driver who owns a towing business, has taken the Chamber of Commerce course for potential candidates, and has run for City Commission three times, including for the northwest district seat in 2015 and an at-large seat in 2019.
Shirah said one of the biggest issues facing Lakeland is homelessness and affordable housing. He remembered several years ago when Realtor David Bunch, who is developing Bonnet Spring Park, took him on a tour of the homeless camp there before it was cleared out to make way for the new park.
“So the three of us went out to Bonnet Springs, or it was the hobo jungle or Chinese jungle. And I was very shocked to see,” Shirah said. “The three of us walked to these camps and they were roped off with caution tape. And that was their community. I mean, even if you had your square, you can rent them, part of them, space to other homeless people. And I never realized … I knew we had a homeless problem, but when going in there and actually seeing what these people are doing. And David said they were paid to relocate. So they can relocate where?”
Another solution are rents that families living here or relocating to Lakeland can afford.
“You got to have affordable housing and attainable housing — and we don’t have that,” Shirah said. “I mean to see that we get that right now. I don’t know what the answer is. Just controlling growth, I think, would be something the commission needs to look at.”
He also wants to see children who grow up in Lakeland stay here for meaningful work. He talked about his faith and his love of his family.
“That means a lot to me. I believe — I am a believer,” Shirah said. “I want to see my grandchildren and great grandchildren graduate from our great universities here in the Polk County area and stay here. I’m so afraid (my granddaughter), she’s going to go to the University of Florida – she’s already made up her mind — and I’m afraid once she leaves, there are no telling what’s going to happen. You know the feeling – your family moves away.
“I guess I’m selfish, ‘cause I want to keep them all here because I love my grandchildren.”
Samuel Simmons is a former city of Lakeland accountant who is president of the Webster Park Civic Association, a past president of the Neighborhood Coalition Council and a co-founder of the Central Florida Business Diversity Council. He currently owns a housing and financial services consulting firm, building affordable housing. He holds a Ph.D. in business administration.
He also discussed affordable housing, something he is so passionate about that he has begun working with the city to build homes families can afford.
“My vision for Lakeland moving forward is to review growth management models through which the city can identify scenarios that would meet its desired outcomes, such as expansion with land reservation,” Simmons said. “Within the northwest district, my vision includes affordable housing for both for sale and rental units. This includes research to identify ways to supplement rents and mortgages.”
He explained that when he worked in the city’s finance department, he served under the local housing finance manager and oversaw a multimillion-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he monitored and adjusted as needed.
“I find the issue of growth management to be most intriguing because it affects all citizens of every quadrant of the city,” Simmons said. “Growth is already here and it continues to come. As a City Commission, we have the authority to shape how the city of Lakeland will look and feel within the next five, 10, 15 and 20 years.”
He said he also wants to address or mitigate the homeless issue because people from other areas come to Lakeland after hearing about the amenities provided by places like Lighthouse Ministries, the Salvation Army and Talbot House Ministries.
He said he wanted to run for the open seat because he wants to ensure the voice of the northwest district is heard and fairly represented, adding that he has addressed the commission on numerous occasions to discuss quality of life issues.
“I believe we govern honestly when we’re able to empathize with those whom our decisions affect,” Simmons said.
Saga Stevin ran for mayor of Lakeland last year and lost to incumbent Bill Mutz. She has been a platelet rich plasma technician and is a member of the board of directors for the Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom and Polk Education Foundation.
“My leading guess is that you would like to have somebody who could at least have a running start and also get caught up to where you are on this year’s – where you are on your schedule of duties now,” Stevin said.
She said she met with most major departments’ officials last year during her campaign, along with prominent chambers, churches, neighborhood associations and community leaders. She also read the 285-page “2030 Plan for Lakeland.”
“The best part I found about running for office last year is meeting the people who are the heartbeat of the city and getting to know those who live here in various areas,” Stevin said. “I got to know their concerns, their complaints, their compliments, and what they would like to see from my heart … I do know that I would be a voice for the northwest district, as varied as it is socio-economically and culturally.”
She said she is familiar with legislation on a state and national level.
All candidates were asked if they would be available to serve on the commission, as well as the many boards on which Walker currently serves. Stevin said that while she sets her own hours for work, she travels one week out of each six to eight for her job, mainly to Minnesota. When she is in Lakeland, her top priority is her mother.
“I thank God every day — and not just in the winter — that I live in Lakeland. This is what I would like for everybody in the city to say,” Stevin said. “I’m the only applicant who chose to run last year. There were available seats.”
She said one issue she has found is in the Lake Wire District, where residents are concerned about prostitution, homelessness and chickens. “Chickens are on a lot of lists,” she said.
At the end of the meeting, commissioners decided a procedure to select the next member: Each commissioner will write their top four choices in order and submit those lists to the City Clerk’s Office during next Monday’s commission meeting. The clerk will compile the lists and submit an overall ranking. Once the commission has the rankings, they will make a final selection.
Under the City Charter, the commission is tasked with filling a vacancy on the board if there is less than two years until the next election.
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at email@example.com or 863-272-9250.
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