A Confederate memorial would remain in the center of Munn Park but would be supplemented by other downtown monuments that reflect Lakeland history, under a plan put in motion today by a sharply divided City Commission.
A vote is scheduled for the commission’s 10 a.m. meeting on Dec. 4, during which members of the public will be able to speak about the Confederate monument, which was placed in the park in 1910 by United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Commissioners today cancelled a planned public forum on the monument scheduled for Nov. 14 at the RP Funding Center. Commissioners said they feared the evening meeting would attract unruly advocates from out of town. They also said that the many emails and phone calls they’ve received have already given them a strong sense of what their constituents want.
If the measure to preserve the rebel monument passes Dec. 4, it will be one of the last acts of the current commission before new commissioners are seated in January.
At least three new commissioners will be elected by Lakeland voters next Tuesday and in a likely runoff election Dec. 5.
One or more candidates in all four races on the ballot favor removing the monument, according to responses to a LkldNow questionnaire, so it’s possible that a new majority could decide the issue differently.
The commission today voted 4-2 to put the issue on their Dec. 4 agenda. The measure before them that day will ask the city staff to update the master plan for Munn Park and nearby areas to include new monuments to Lakeland’s cultural heritage as well as cost estimates and funding sources for the monuments.
Today’s meeting marked the first time in two years of discussing the monument that the positions of all seven city commissioners became clear.
Mayor Howard Wiggs was joined by Commissioners Bill Read, Phillip Walker and Edie Yates in voting to keep the existing monument and add new ones.
Commissioners Jim Malless, Don Selvage and Justin Troller said they favor relocating the monument for display elsewhere. Malless didn’t vote on today’s motion because he had left the meeting to attend a candidate event. He’s the only incumbent up for re-election.
The vote to cancel the Nov. 14 public forum was 5-2, with Malless and Selvage dissenting.
The idea for new monuments was introduced to the commission two months ago by Ashley Troutman, an insurance executive and civic volunteer who said at the time the monument never bothered him while growing up as an African-American in Lakeland.
Walker said he supports Troutman’s proposal: “Let’s embrace what’s there and use it as an educational tool and add to it.”
Selvage said a similar idea for a “heritage trail” in downtown Lakeland grew out of discussions he had with Troutman, Myrtice Young of the Polk County History Museum, a Florida Southern College professor and representatives of Platform Florida.
But today he rejected the idea of a monument garden in the Munn Park area. “As long as the statue is in the park, it will be a divisive issue,” he said.
He later said, “We have to accept the fact that that monument is offensive and painful to some people … They say, ‘How can we have as the centerpiece of our city a statue that commemorates a terrible time in our history? Why can’t we move it elsewhere?’ ”
But Wiggs said in a representative democracy, elected officials need to represent the will of the majority, and a healthy majority of emails and phone calls to commissioners have supported keeping the monument in place.
Selvage responded: “There is a time we need to speak up for minority issues and this is one.”
Wiggs said he hopes the plan to add cultural history monuments will lead to a feeling of unity: “I do believe that over time as we make a clear statement that we believe all of our community wants to be unified, that we care about everybody in the community and that as we add these other components, that you will see some of the folks who may today would be adamantly opposed, that you’ll see them soften their position. They’ll say that maybe we are embracing this as a community as our history, that I’m not crazy about it, but I can see there’s a real intent on the part of the leadership of this community to make sure that everybody feels valued.”
Today’s actions come one day after a group called Save Southern Heritage Florida called for cancellation of the Nov. 14 public forum.
At a news conference in Munn Park Thursday, the group released an opinion poll in which 86 percent of the 442 Lakeland residents polled oppose moving the statue and 79 percent think discussing the topic is disrespectful. Those polled were overwhelmingly white (89 percent) and older than 65 (69 percent).
Early in today’s discussion, Selvage told fellow commissioners that the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority had requested a delay — not a cancellation — of the Nov. 14 public forum because it falls at the same time of several previously scheduled events: a Lakeland Magic game, an Imperial Symphony Orchestra concert and the annual downtown holiday walkabout shopping event.
The future of Munn Park monuments will ultimately be decided by the next set of commissioners since they will need to approve updates to the park master plan. In addition, if a future commission wants to relocate the monument, that move would be subject to review of the city’s Historic Preservation Board.
SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: firstname.lastname@example.org