Why it matters:
- The city election is one month away on Nov. 7.
- Early voting is Oct. 23 to Nov. 3.
- Commissioners set policy for Lakeland’s municipal government, including oversight of the city-owned Lakeland Electric.
The intended Lincoln-Douglas-style debate format fell flat when interim Commissioner Samuel Simmons and challengers Lolita Berrien and Guy LaLonde Jr. declined to cross-examine each other and said they agree on just about everything.
“I believe every one of us is qualified for this position. All it takes is intelligence and passion for Lakeland, and I think each of us has those qualities,” Simmons told the audience of 15 people who gathered at Just Dance Academy downtown.
Berrien echoed the sentiment. “We feel the same about the city. The things that are being said are redundant. We care about growth in our city and the safety of each and every one of the residents. … There’s really nothing to debate about among the three of us because we’re on the same page. So I would just like to say that I hope we will be successful and whichever of us is chosen to be the next commissioner, that we will work together.”
LaLonde said the three have bonded over the past year, since they applied for the interim position that Simmons ultimately won to fill the remainder of former Commissioner Phillip Walker’s term. He said city residents will get “3-for-1,” regardless of who wins.
“You have three good candidates,” LaLonde said. “If Sam’s elected or Lolita’s elected, I will be in their corner 100% to ensure that they’re successful. And I would actually hold them accountable to help me and be boots on the ground if I’m elected — and if they don’t call me, I’m going to go to their house. Because there’s a lot of real work that needs to be done.”
The trio were aligned on making sure infrastructure keeps pace with growth. However, they varied greatly in style and there were moments when subtle policy differences emerged.
LaLonde was gregarious and charismatic, comfortable with public speaking and good at connecting with those who posed questions. Simmons had carefully prepared opening and closing statements, but was more self-conscious and measured in his answers. Berrien was soft-spoken but no-nonsense, responding to questions efficiently and concisely.
Different approaches to affordable housing
Since the debate only took 20 minutes instead of the allotted hour, the majority of the evening was given over to audience questions. The issues of greatest concern to attendees were affordable housing and homelessness.
Terry Coney, chairman of the Lakeland branch of the NAACP, opened a question by saying, “You all mentioned affordable housing as an issue in the city …” at which point LaLonde interjected, “Not me.”
Berrien and Simmons, who did his doctoral dissertation on affordable housing, both said it is important for the city to provide financial incentives to developers to build affordable housing. However, LaLonde said that he doesn’t think the city can build its way out of its housing challenges.
“It’s not enough… While those are all answers, I feel like I’m throwing a dart at a board,” LaLonde said. “To me, part of this problem is there’s not enough pay. Everything is going up with inflation and stuff, but no one’s addressing the wages.”
“While you have your bottom classes going to $15 an hour … why is our median income stagnant?” LaLonde asked. “We’ve got the warehouses and stuff up and down I-4, we’ve got it all over the northwest district, but there’s not enough high-tech paying jobs right here in Lakeland.”
“The average rent in Lakeland is anywhere from $1,750 to the median range of $2,100, and there’s nothing too affordable about that,” LaLonde said. “The average house costs somewhere around $300,000 — once again, not really affordable.”
He said he believes a big part of the answer is for the city to do more to attract companies that pay $22 to $50 an hour. “Those high-paying jobs, those are the people that can afford this. You start bringing better wages, better jobs, you’re going to compress that gap.”
No simple solutions for homelessness
The candidates all hedged when pressed for specific plans to address homelessness by Ana Rivera, president and founder of the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Polk County.
Simmons said some cities including Jacksonville put people who are homeless on buses and send them to Lakeland, so any capacity the city builds will quickly be filled. “We certainly have probably the best shelters in the state. That’s why they’re coming here,” he said.
Simmons said Talbot House has reached out to the city about helping to fund a day center where people who are homeless can sit in shade, use restrooms, charge cellphones and have a meal, instead of going to Munn Park. “So that may be the answer. But I don’t know the answer, to tell you the truth. I would like to know the answer. I think we need more research on it,” Simmons said.
Berrien said, “I know that I wouldn’t be able to solve that issue in four years. But I can say this, I will get started on it.”
She said a good first step would be to create a comprehensive registry of people living on the streets. “Someone needs to take charge of the administrative part,” Berrien said. “I will go to organizations that take information from the homeless and find out the reason why they are homeless,” which would help identify specific needs.
In addition, Berrien said the city should identify vacant structures that could be converted to housing. “There’s a lot of empty buildings all over the city that somehow, some way, we could turn those buildings into places or homes for the homeless to get them off the street, and help them to get a job, to be able to survive and not be homeless. … Hotels that are no longer being used; they can be used for the homeless.”
LaLonde said at least 30 organizations including the city, Lakeland Police and the Polk County Homeless Coalition have met to discuss the issue. He said some people may need help getting identification documents. Others may want a bus ticket. “Some of these people are just looking to go home. They legitimately want to go home, and that may mean providing a means for them to go home, and sometimes that may be a cheaper way.”
But he said the city also has an obligation to “our other citizens who are not homeless, who want to enjoy Munn Park, who do not want to go down and worry about fecal matter on the benches.”
He acknowledged that it’s a “hard conversation to have” but he said he doesn’t think government alone can solve the problem. “Through public-private partnerships, I believe we can make a big dent in it, but it will be an ongoing thing. Unfortunately with this economy, there’s more children that are homeless, families that are homeless, and it’s adding up each day.”
Robyn Cohen of the nonprofit Cosmo Project — which distributes food, clothing and hygiene products at Munn Park at 11 a.m. every Sunday — said the day center isn’t just a vague idea; there is a detailed and concrete plan “sitting on the mayor’s desk.” She asked the candidates if they would commit to supporting it.
Simmons said he is aware of the proposal and would “make further inquiries,” but he said there are people who are opposed to the plan and he needed more information before he could take a stand.
Berrien replied, “I can only say at this point, I hear what you’re saying and I will take consideration for the future, whatever happens.”
LaLonde said, “If elected, I would look at your proposal. … I think it’s something that needs to be addressed, but I also think we need to address both sides of the issue as true citizens.”
Making the case to voters
Collegiality aside, the candidates were challenged to make the case for why voters should choose them over their rivals.
Race was not expressly mentioned during the evening, however, the northwest district has been represented by a Black commissioner since 1968. Prior to Phillip Walker, the seat was held by notable Black Lakelanders including Gow Fields, Carrie Oldham, Charles Coleman and Dr. John Jackson.
If LaLonde were elected, the City Commission would be all-white for the first time in more than five decades.
Berrien said ultimately, voters need to choose who they feel most comfortable with, but she referenced diversity twice and said her goal is to “make sure things get better and don’t just change and revert back to what it was 50 years ago.”
Simmons said if he is allowed to keep the seat, he will remain focused on quality of life in Lakeland. In terms of his personal philosophy, he said, “I believe we govern honestly when we are able to empathize with those our decisions affect.”
LaLonde said: “The reason why I’m asking you to choose me is, as much as I love these guys, I have a work ethic that I will not be outworked,” adding that he would be “available and accessible 24/7.”
“You call me, I’m going to answer the phone,” LaLonde said. “I may not be able to steer the whole road for you, but I can certainly try to put you down the right road and assist you.”
The election is Nov. 7. Tuesday is the last day to register to vote.
The deadline for voters to request mail-in ballots is Oct. 26. People who want to vote by mail can send a request to email@example.com, call (863) 534-5888, or make the request online at polkelections.gov/Mail-in-Ballot-Request-Form.
Early voting begins Oct. 23 and will be available from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays through Nov. 3 at the Polk County Government Center, 930 E. Parker Street.
LkldNow and the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce will be hosting a “Politics in the Park” candidate forum from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 10 at the Coleman-Bush Building at 1104 Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave.
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