New Rules for Selling Lakeland Electric Closer to Ballot

Two substantive changes to the city charter are closer to making an appearance on the Nov. 5 ballot after the City Commission reversed its earlier decision to put them off to a later year.

In a 5-to-1 non-binding vote Monday, commissioners instructed City Attorney Tim McCausland to reintroduce the two charter amendments back to an ordinance that will put a number of changes to the city charter on the ballot.

“I think it respects the work of the Charter Review Committee and provides to the fullest extent for the public to weigh in on those issues,” Mayor Bill Mutz said.

One of the controversial amendments would make it possible to sell Lakeland Electric after a two-thirds vote by the City Commission and a 65 percent majority approval by Lakeland voters. Currently, the law requires two-thirds of all registered voters, not just those who chose to vote in an election, to approve the sale of the utility.

The other amendment would tighten term limits on the commission to 12 years — currently, a person who is elected as both commissioner and mayor can serve up to 16 years. Though paired through circumstance, the term limit amendment has received far less attention by commissioners.

As promised by them Friday, Commissioners Sara Roberts McCarley and Scott Franklin introduced the reversal to the public hearing discussion.

They were supported through public commentary by Ellis Hirsch, a member of the Charter Review Committee, who said denying the two amendments their chances was tantamount to not trusting voters.

“We worked very hard, very long for a year to take a charter that was 40 years old, reviewed it — we cut out a lot of nonsense,” Hirsch said, and with the help of city professionals “we made some really great decisions.”

Like an inflatable mattress, the majority opposed to including the two amendments on the ballot deflated in a matter of weeks. In May, the commission agreed 6-to-1 to keep them out of the Nov. 5 election, but Monday marked a near complete reversal as the former minority position became a five-member majority. Commissioner Justin Troller has continued to oppose their inclusion; Commissioner Phillip Walker was absent Monday.

Because of the group’s reversal, McCausland recommended restarting the two-step public hearing process that began Monday. Now, the first reading of the new ordinance is set for July 1 and the occasion will be advertised as a public hearing to encourage public comment.

Commissioners could then vote on the ordinance July 15. If it passes, ballot language will be discussed at a later date.

In a speech ahead of the vote, Troller reiterated his opposition to including the Lakeland Electric ballot amendment, saying it would be the first shot in a battle to offload Lakeland’s most important asset by wealthy residents and big businesses.

Blocking the amendment’s inclusion is a defensive measure, he said, because if it is included, and even if voters deny the change, “is that (ballot) language going to go away?” he asked, implying that groups seeking to sell the utility will continue the fight another day.

“There’s an ulterior motive of the influencers, the people who have power and money and want to control the vast majority of Lakelanders,” Troller said.

“It’s not that I don’t trust the voters,” he added, but rather that he believes it would be absurd to even posit what Lakeland Electric would be worth if put up for sale.

He said later that “there’s a push by select few that will get the benefit at the expense of the rest of us, and I absolutely believe that.”

The utility provides the city’s general fund more money than property taxes, each year, through its dividend. If the utility was sold, that value would essentially become an investment vehicle, he added, but he didn’t believe the huge sum of money would be protected against short-term decisions by future commissions.

Definitely not, but maybe?

The arguments that emerged for changing the Lakeland Electric sale provision during the Charter Review Committee meetings in 2016 and 2017 essentially were in two parts:

One, it was badly written law. If the goal of the provision was to prevent the sale of the utility in any realistic circumstance, it takes the garden path to get there.

Further, if the goal of the current provision is to build an unbreachable fortress around the sale of Lakeland Electric, the charter amendment process provides a much easier ladder. Even if the amendment as proposed is passed with its 65 percent popular vote and two-thirds commission vote, it would still be easier to just modify the charter to achieve the same outcome.

And two, the existence of the provision creates a barrier between the market and the utility, preventing any real understanding of the utility’s market value. Though there has been no public disclosure about anyone’s desire to sell Lakeland Electric since the idea was shot down in 2012, presumably there is a dollar amount that could get people excited for change.

Troller, having recently read the minutes from those meetings, had a response about the value of Lakeland Electric: “It’s priceless.”

Other decisions to make

Commissioners are now scheduled to make a final vote on the slate of charter amendments on July 15, but further action will be required. Commissioners will need to decide how to package the numerous amendments, most of which were made to conform to state law, neutralize gendered language or to clear up deprecated language.

Franklin said he recommends putting the housekeeping amendments in one package and separating the term limit and Lakeland Electric amendments into their own questions.

He said the commission needs to be careful, though.

“We want to avoid what we did at the state level recently where we mixed issues,” he said, referring to the 2018 state election where seemingly unrelated topics were combined into single ballot items.

Video: Commission discussion on amendments

City Commission Meeting 2019.06.17 from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

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