Next month, for the first time in nearly 13 years, Phillip Walker will not be an official public servant.
The Lakeland city commissioner and insurance broker turned in his letter of resignation over the summer, effective Nov. 7, when he was running for the Florida House. When he lost that bid, he applied to fulfill his term and his commission colleagues said they were willing to rehire him, but he was told it would violate Florida’s term limit law.
In an interview with LkldNow, Walker said the thing he is most proud of in his tenure is simply helping people.
“I’m here to serve the people,” Walker said.
On Monday, Walker paused during the city commission meeting to remember his tenure, but more poignantly, his colleagues took the time to thank him, calling him a statesman, a bridge for peace, a public servant, an empathizer, the city’s memory keeper and someone beloved by city staff.
“What an honor to have served the city of Lakeland,” Walker said, pausing to quell his emotions, “where I was born and raised. In my 69 years now, I have witnessed much change here in the city and have been a part of the numerous decision-making.”
Walker, who has spoken about not being allowed to swim in the city’s public pool as a child because he is Black, said he felt his top accomplishment during his tenure was to give a voice to the city’s Black residents, who had long felt they were silenced by the establishment.
“As I reflect on my years of service, there are several situations that come to mind … at the time I took office, excuse me, and until now, which became subject matter to support and of course, deal with and resolve,” Walker said. “Let me share a few: number one – bridging the gap where the African-American community felt there was no connection to city hall.”
Part of his work, he said in an interview, was revitalizing lagging neighborhood associations in the northwest area, which helped give them a cohesive voice in what they wanted to accomplish and what they would ask of city agencies.
He also listed his advocacy for diversity, equity and inclusion so everyone would feel and be heard.
“Whether it be by ethnicity, age, gender or physical disabilities, no community – and I stress that – no community or city will remain healthy unless all are represented at every level of government, providing economic, social and spiritual support,” said Walker.
That effort led to the creation of the Lakeland History and Culture Center at the Lakeland Public Library, which opened last month. He brought up the idea for an African-American History Center in 2018, which evolved into a history and culture center for everyone. He called it “a gallery sharing stories and exhibits of Lakeland’s rich history and those who have made it possible.”
“Many people in Lakeland may not have an idea of other cultures or ethnicities who helped to make Lakeland what it has become,” Walker told LkldNow.
The commissioners chuckled when Walker mentioned his work to create “Downtown West,” which is coming to fruition with the opening of Bonnet Springs Park and the approved development of the triangle area at Kathleen Road and George Jenkins Boulevard. He and others expect a renaissance of neighborhoods west of that as well.
But he cautioned to LkldNow that the area could not become gentrified, that it needed to be protected from rising real estate prices and property values that might force out residents who had lived in the area for generations, beginning when it was called Robinson’s Quarters and was settled by Black railroad workers.
He also cited his work on the Gang Task Force with Lakeland Police to help clear up a lot of violence in the city.
“We had a very terrible situation in our city when it came to gang violence. We saw young folk killing themselves,” Walker told LkldNow. “Not only did we just have the police and city staffers, but we also had the faith-based organizations, the representation there, business representation, school board. So we had a mirror.”
He said the task force implemented prevention and intervention programs. The task force evolved into the Community Engagement Task Force under LPD.
He noted his push for the city to acquire and demolish the Lincoln Court Apartments, which he described as infested with prostitution and drugs, and then redevelop the property. It is now Lincoln Square, a thriving neighborhood of homes owned by its residents.
And he advocated to bridge the digital divide, bringing internet connection for Lakeland’s impoverished neighborhoods.
He also backed the resurgence of downtown Lakeland, stretching from Lake Morton to Memorial Boulevard, and from Lake Mirror to Lake Wire. It is populated with locally owned restaurants, offices for local businesses, and shops owned by Lakeland residents.
Walker called the downtown core “the living room of our city becoming an economical and vibrant hub.”
The controversial relocation of the Confederate monument from the center of Munn Park to Veteran’s Park “with other war and symbolic memorials” was also among his accomplishments.
Finally, Walker, who served as a police officer, is an insurance salesman and most recently served as president of the Florida League of Cities, said he is simply a champion of Lakeland as it evolves.
His focus was on “continued growth of our city, which affects critical areas of city operations – for example, police, fire, water, transportation, to name a few – and having to be fiscally responsible.”
Walker became emotional when he talked about the city’s staff, thanking them for helping him each step of the way.
“In my years of service, you have been there for me with resources and answers when needed,” Walker said, noting he has served with three mayors, three city managers, two city attorneys, four chiefs of police, and three fire chiefs.
“Now, if I have helped you somewhere along your journey, I thank God for how He has orchestrated my path,” Walker said to Lakeland residents. “I leave this for my replacement. Lead by principle versus popularity. Lead with consistency, being concise versus being sporadic. And lead to serve versus to be served. As I close, I say farewell, but not goodbye, as I’m sure our paths will cross soon. I thank God for the time, I thank God for my family, my wife, especially, who allow me the time to be away from home to deal and to endure many situations that we have been confronted with. I thank God again for the opportunity to serve and I say again farewell.”
Walker was given the key to the city by Veronica Rountree, president of the Pinehurst Neighborhood Association, with Mayor Bill Mutz by his side. Rountree had applied to fill Walker’s commission seat and was among the top candidates.
And then it was his colleagues’ chance to praise Walker.
Commissioner Mike Musick, the most recently elected commissioner, said he was thankful to sit beside Walker and learn from him.
“Not only do we share a common faith, but a love for the city and to have to work around a lot of public servants,” Musick said. “You know, I think we use that term very flippantly sometimes … but Phillip has shown that to be a way of life. You know, there are people who just they get up and they serve and that’s what they do. And I hope that I continue to make you proud as a commissioner doing the same thing.”
As Commissioner Sarah Roberts McCarley spoke, she became emotional – something she said was out of character for her publicly. Her late husband, Randy Roberts, introduced her to Walker, saying he told her Walker was “wonderful. He loves Jesus, he’s a good man.”
And then Roberts McCarley said Walker helped her navigate a world without her husband after Walker lost his wife and she lost her husband to a sudden heart attack.
“He has not only been a statesman and really served Lakeland and the state of Florida so well in the last several years through this role as a commissioner, but he has been a guiding light to me personally of how to have fortitude and faith and serve others, even when things are hard,” Roberts McCarley said. “And I just could not commend him anymore for being a loving friend to me, but such an example to me of how to take a really hard situation and make it better and always have that heart for other people because you can empathize, and you are a great empathizer. And I think that’s what makes great public servants.”
She is now taking Walker’s place on the Ridge League of Cities in East Polk – an organization on which her late father had once served.
She said her father “was always so complimentary of Commissioner Walker. When other Lakeland people didn’t show up to Ridge League, Commissioner Walker was always there,” Roberts McCarley said. “So I’m really honored to take his seat and serve on the Ridge League of Cities in honor of Commissioner Walker’s, as well as my dad’s, and I just … there aren’t enough words, but I just want you to know that not only have I loved serving with you and looking at you as an example, I just, more importantly, love that you’re my friend. And I really appreciate you.”
Mutz noted Walker’s ability to not hold a grudge and not be upset if his idea didn’t gain the support of other commissioners.
“I’ll add your persistence to move on – when things may not always go your way, you don’t spend time whining, you don’t spend time wishing differently,” Mutz said. “You spend time figuring out what we do next. And I think that’s been a wonderful model to us all.”
He read a proclamation during the meeting to publicly and officially thank Walker for his nearly 13 years of service to the city’s residents, calling him a close personal friend and someone he admires. He also noted Walker’s impeccable fashion sense, and his dedication to his district, often seen walking around neighborhoods and noting any deficiencies, including potholes or leaking water meters.
Commissioner Stephanie Madden compared Walker to a bridge, saying bridge builders are necessary but so rare.
“I feel like today we have a lot of big gulfs and divides, that it would be great if we had more Commissioner Walker bridges to go across those divides,” Madden said. “And I always say, you know, I love the local government because it’s not partisan, it’s the messy middle … we’ve got to talk about it, work it out to get to a solution. So that’s kind of how I feel about the word ‘bridge’ – to me it’s such a great metaphor for who you’ve been … I’ll add Peacemaker to that because I think it’s really hard to be a bridge because the thing about bridges is they get walked on because they don’t join a side and everybody wants you to join a side and be on my side and stand solidly on my side, but then if we each stay on our side, then no bridges are built.”
She also called Walker the city’s memory keeper, the man who knows about neighborhoods and their histories, about the people who live there, including. Moorehead, which was taken by eminent domain to build The Lakeland Center, now called the RP Funding Center.
“It was politicized about moving monuments and erasing history. You know I kept hearing that word, you know, don’t erase history. But what I found is history had already been erased,” Madden said. “I mean, who all knew about Moorehead unless you went and read the little sign by RP Funding Center? And who knew about the Buffalo Soldiers and who knew about some of the folks that you knew intimately because you lived in that neighborhood and had a long enough history to be able to remember for us?”
She said the memory keepers need to be at every table and to be at every dais to help usher young people to a place of good decision.
“There would be a big gap without having memory keepers from every neighborhood and you’ve been our memory keeper for the African-American community, for the Northwest Community, and for your family, for your own personal experiences, living in the Jim Crow South,” Madden said. “I’m going to miss that gap and I’m hopeful that whoever fills your seat or fills another seat on this will keep those memories for us …”
One of the more senior members of the commission, Bill “Tiger” Read, said Walker always presented words of wisdom to the panel.
“I’ve always leaned my ear toward you a lot of time to get a direction on what topics may be going, to give me a lead, and so I got a little bit of insight on which way I can go one way or the other and still take the right decision for all of the people,” Read said, noting that their wives became fast friends and he was hoping to be able to socialize with the Walkers now that they wouldn’t be violating the Sunshine Law, which prohibits lawmakers from discussing official business outside of public meetings.
Commissioner Chad McLeod noted Walker’s ability to laugh through difficult times.
“I appreciate your sense of humor and how you maintain that, even in challenging moments, on tough issues … and I think that’s important in the work that we do,” McLeod said. “I will miss hearing you say ‘We’ve been here before, y’all.’ And I feel like if we get into an issue, you say something like that, and for me, I always sit up and pay attention to it.”
Walker told LkldNow there are things he would have liked to accomplish, including the redevelopment of Downtown West. He is hoping his successor, longtime neighborhood activist Sam Simmons, can carry the torch.
As for where he is headed next, he is not sure, but is praying for direction.
“I’m sure certain things are brewing,” he said. “When that time comes, I hope folks will know that I’m still engaged and will continue to be engaged.”
When asked if there were anything he would like to say to Lakeland’s residents, he said he wanted them to be confident that the city is well managed and well maintained.
“I think this commission cares about and wants all citizens taken care of and treated equitably,” Walker said.
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-272-9250.
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