In Lakeland, the revolution might not be televised, but it will play out in social media. There’s a push to replace the city’s council-manager form of government with a strong mayor system, and the people promoting it are using Facebook as a listening post to get feedback before they even offer a formal proposal.
As soon as Ledger reporter John Chambliss broke the news about the effort, proponent Ekho Powell asked for comments on Facebook. (Check the bottom of this post to view some of the Facebook discussions of the issue.)
Powell made it clear she was looking for contrary arguments and spent most of the rest of the day responding to scores of comments, critiques and counter-proposals.
A few days later, when independent journalist Billy Townsend offered his detailed critique of a strong-mayor plan, proponent Gregory Fancelli reached out on Facebook to assure that checks and balances would be baked into the proposal. Fancelli also started another Facebook conversation that generated a lot of discussion on the strong-mayor issue.
Any changes to the charter will need to be approved by voters; proponents are hoping to get it on the November municipal election ballot, which currently includes three City Commission seats.
For now, the people pushing for a new form of government are adopting a tone of openness to new ideas as they seek public input through social media; they’re also conducting polls and say they will release results when available. Presumably these listening efforts will help them fashion a charter proposal with a wide base of support.
Until they produce a charter proposal, we’re left with a lot of questions about a new form of city government, including:
- Is a chief administrative officer envisioned? (Many cities with a strong mayor employ a CAO or vice mayor to oversee the day-to-day business of government.)
- Does the mayor have veto power over city commission votes? Can a veto be overridden?
- Does the mayor have sole power to fire department heads, or does the commission have oversight?
- Will city commissioners be full-time or part-time?
- How many commissioners will there be? Will they be elected from districts, at-large, or some combination?
- Will elections remain non-partisan?
- Will the civil service status of any groups of city employees be affected?
- Fancelli told The Ledger he envisions that Lakeland Electric would be overseen by the City Commission and Utility Committee. What role would the mayor have over the largest department? Are there other departments that the commission would oversee?
The prevailing mood of the social media discussions is frustration. There are two perspectives shared by both those on social media who want a strong mayor, those who prefer the current council-manager form and those offering another solution:
- The current City Commission is dysfunctional.
- More accountability is needed.
In broad terms, those who want a stronger mayor are frustrated by the lack of accountability from a city manager who isn’t responsible to the voters and a City Commission who they feel should either ride him harder or fire him.
Those who like the council-manager form are looking to the electorate to become more engaged and hold the elected commissioners accountable.
In some ways, a push for a new form of government was predictable. An academic paper on forms of municipal government notes that charter changes are usually prompted by voter dissatisfaction. In Lakeland, the spark would have been the Lakeland Police Department scandals of 2013 that focused attention on shortcomings in city government.
The paper by three political scientists says that most modern city governments blend elements of strong mayor and council-manager forms and that the guiding notion of stronger-mayor governments is political responsiveness while the guiding notion of strong-manager governments is administrative efficiency.
Here are some of the prevailing themes that emerged in the online discussions. If it looks like there are more arguments against a strong mayor than for the idea, it’s probably because the proponents are doing more listening than talking in this initial phase. (Note: Some of the quotes have been edited for clarity.)
THEMES FROM THOSE FAVORING A STRONG MAYOR:
Fancelli, who has posted several times about his impatience with city bureaucracy, told The Ledger, “Everyone at every level has been affected negatively by the current city structure” and that the City Commission’s inability to direct City Manager Doug Thomas has put him in a position of making policy decisions: “That doesn’t meet his job description and that’s not his personality,” he told The Ledger. “We need to have someone responsible for how the city is run and what its needs are.”
Accountability is needed
“Voters want accountability and with our commission there’s just no accountability … and no political courage to do much, if anything. We’re painfully aware of that with the police scandal. We should model ourselves after Tampa, where its mayor, Bob Buckhorn, has done a terrific job. Our mayor should present the budget, have veto authority, and should appoint department directors.”
— Chris McLaughlin on Facebook
“One of the statements I keep hearing is that the city was bruised so badly and tarnished. And no one was responsible for it. We need someone who for better or worse is willing to take responsibility.”
— Ekho Powell quoted in The Ledger
Who you gonna call?
“In a strong mayor form of government, everybody knows who the mayor is. Most people don’t even know who their city commissioners are. So the City Commissioners hold the city manager accountable. How that working for us?”
— George Avant on Facebook
Vote the rascal out
At least you can vote the mayor out , though with their evil puppeteer Thomas , you can’t.”
— Ron Alexander in Ledger article comments
THEMES FROM THOSE OPPOSING A STRONG MAYOR:
It’s a power play
“The strong-mayor system confers power, not leadership … The strong-mayor system vests its power in one person who answers only to the voters, only once every four years. The council form divides it among seven, requiring at least four to take action or make policy.”
— Mike Maguire in his CityZenShip blog.
“This is just a way for Lakeland’s elite to control the city. You don’t think a strong mayor will be bought and paid for?”
— Bob Nickell in Ledger article comments
The unintended winner will be city workers
Here’s my attempt to summarize a lengthy Lakeland Local post by Townsend, who has clearly done a lot of thinking about this: It will be easy for a voting bloc to dominate an election where only about 6,500 votes are needed to prevail. The people most incentivized to prompt family and friends to vote are the 2,600 people employed by city government. “A strong mayor structure in Lakeland will kill any sense of organizational culture because that culture will be so subject to the whims of a small electorate.”
Fix the commission
“Why put that much political power in the hands of one person? We have seven (commissioners) representing 100,000. Let’s solve the problem, not change the structure.” (And in a separate post:) “We have an ineffective City Commission. Let’s fix the problem.”
— Ron Tomlin on Facebook
Worried about Lakeland Electric
“I fear this effort is a backdoor effort to once again make Lakeland Electric more vulnerable … I can see benefit in removing Lakeland Electric from under the City Manager and let the GM respond directly to the Commission sitting as a Utility Board.”
— Ron Tomlin on Facebook
Appointed managers are effective for the county and schools
“There have been no problems with how the county manager manages the county. When an issues becomes problematic, the county commissioners make a firm decision to take action; problem solved. Another point to consider: The Polk County electorate approved an appointed superintendent of schools vs. an elected superintendent. Lesson learned. “
— Doris Moore Bailey on Facebook
Remove mayor; shrink commission
“Much better off to get rid of mayor altogther, shrink to five commissioners, and pay them much better. 50K per year or so.”
— Billy Townsend on Facebook
Involve a charter review commission
Charter Review Committees, appointed and vetted by the public have been successful for Polk county for years.
— Thomas Phillips on Facebook
Involve all Lakeland Electric customers
“Anyone who has to deal with Lakeland Electric should have a vote. We pay city taxes through them, the least they could do is extend the vote.”
— Teresa C. Smith on Facebook
Ekho Powell’s request for feedback
Gregory Fancelli responds to Billy Townsend’s article
Fancelli begins another discussion