Forum on City Government Format Will Be One-Sided

For the people pushing for a Lakeland strong mayor, it may be a case of “we don’t want to spoil the party so we won’t go.” Two spokesmen for Committee for a Strong Lakeland declined an invitation to make their case this afternoon to a committee appointed by the City Commission to make recommendations for revising the city charter.

That city-sanctioned Charter Review Committee voted in May at one of its earliest meetings to recommend keeping the current council-manager form of government rather than rehashing the strong mayor debate.

But the group decided last month that perhaps it had been too hasty and should hear from representatives of both sides of the strong-mayor issue, then take another vote.

Speakers supporting the status quo at today’s 3 p.m. meeting at City Hall will be two long-time City Hall insiders: former City Manger Gene Strickland and former City Commissioner Larry Durrence, a retired history professor and college administrator.

Speakers supporting the strong mayor will be absent. Matt Doster, a consultant guiding the strong-mayor effort, and Bruce Anderson, chairman of the group, both declined an invitation to appear.

“We were asked to be an advocate, but we didn’t see ourselves playing that role, especially since we’re pursuing a different path for putting (a revised charter) on the ballot,” Doster said this morning.

A dispassionate review of municipal government formats might make more sense than a debate between advocates, he said.

“We’ll be happy to stay in touch and communicate,” he said. “We’re two different organizations on different paths with different methods to amend the charter.”

In a similar vein, Anderson said, “We’d like to ‘take the temperature’ of the people of Lakeland and the best way to do that is through a vote.  All of our energy is really focused on that, rather than on the commission.”

Committee for a Strong Lakeland has drafted a proposed revision of the city charter that changes the form of government to one the group calls executive mayor. The group is in the process of collecting enough signatures to place their revised charter on an upcoming election ballot.

Meanwhile, the 15-member committee appointed by city commissioners is reviewing the current charter in monthly meetings under the tutelage of City Attorney Tim McCausland. Its goal is to make a recommendation for changes to the City Commission by June, after which commissioners will decide whether to accept the proposed changes and put them to a public vote.

The agenda for today’s Charter Review Committee meeting includes both a re-look at the form of government and a review of the portion of the charter that discusses duties of the City Commission.

Among the portions being considered is language that would make it, as The Ledger’s Christopher Guinn said, “merely very difficult rather than impossible for citizens to sell Lakeland Electric.”

The current charter requires a vote of two-thirds of all registered voters in the city to sell the utility. The group decided last month to change that to a vote of two-thirds of the City Commission and 65 percent of the people who vote on the issue (rather than the current two-thirds of all electors.)

While Citizens for a Strong Lakeland will not be represented at today’s meeting, the group sent a written update of its activities this morning to committee chairman Joe Mawhinney, who distributed it to the rest of the committee.

In diplomatic language, the document makes note of friction between some city officials and the strong-mayor group: After filing the paperwork needed to start a petition drive, the document noted, “the city attorney gave his opinion that a response by the city to Strong Lakeland’s filing was not required or even advisable and that there would be no duty to respond until the petitions are collected. A motion to ask the attorney to provide a review failed on a 3-4 vote.”