Phillip Walker Withdraws His Bid to Continue as a Lakeland City Commissioner

Until today, it looked like Phillip Walker was a shoo-in to continue serving on the Lakeland City Commission for another 13 months. He had resigned from his commission seat to run for another office, but after losing that race he applied to continue beyond his Nov. 7 resignation. However, this afternoon he removed himself from consideration for the interim position after the city attorney said his appointment could subject the city to a legal challenge.

In a lengthy email to Walker earlier today, City Attorney Palmer Davis explained that his appointment could be interpreted as contrary to stricter term limits set on city commissioners when amendments to the City Charter were approved by voters in 2019.

At 3:08, Walker responded that he is taking his name out of consideration because “it is my desire to NOT place the City of Lakeland in any vulnerable situation.” He ended his email with a quote from Ephesians: “endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace”.

The background

Back in May, Walker resigned from the commission effective Nov. 7, in keeping with a Florida law that required him to resign from office in order to run for the Florida House of Representatives.

On Aug. 19, three days after he lost that race to Jennifer Canady, Walker applied to be appointed to the seat just 18 minutes before the deadline for applications closed.

The City Commission had been scheduled to select a replacement on Monday from among nine people who applied for the 13-month interim position. Several commissioners had said they favor Walker because of his 13 years’ experience and the fact that they don’t want to turn down somebody who has already been popularly elected to the seat.

However, the City Charter — the legal document establishing the rules for Lakeland’s municipal government — has term limit provisions that probably make Walker ineligible to continue past his resignation date, according to Davis.

Under the City Charter, “No one shall serve, more than three (3) complete terms in any combination of the positions of Mayor and Commissioner. Partial terms greater than 2 years shall constitute a complete term for purposes of this section.”

Walker was first elected to the commission in December 2010 for a term that lasted exactly two years — Jan. 1, 2011 to Dec. 31, 2012; that does not count as a full term under the City Charter’s provisions.

However, he was subsequently elected for full terms three times: in 2011, 2015 and 2019. Because he had already served for more than two years in his current term when he resigned to run for another office, the term is best interpreted as complete, Davis concluded.

The City Charter’s term-limit section was updated by local voters in 2019 and has language that applies to then-current commissioners, which would include Walker: “Members in office upon the effective date of this Section, shall not serve more than twelve (12) consecutive years or three complete terms in the singular position of Mayor or Commissioner or more than sixteen (16) consecutive years, or four (4) complete terms, in any combination of Mayor or Commissioner.”

Because of his partial term in 2010 and 2011, Walker has exceeded the 12 consecutive years mentioned in that passage. Until he resigned, he was grandfathered in because he was in his third term, Davis concluded.

Davis noted in his email to Walker that it can be argued that the charter language doesn’t apply to Walker because the vacancy is the grandfathered term he has been serving.

“However, it is my opinion that the better interpretation is that, because of the resignation, which is irrevocable under the resign-to-run statute, the grandfathered term came to an end and the new vacancy language in the charter precluding appointment of an individual who has served more than twelve consecutive years now applies.”

Former City Attorney Joe Mawhinney chaired the commission-appointed committee that reviewed the City Charter in 2018 and 2019 and recommended several amendments to the charter that were presented to Lakeland voters in 2019. Voters approved the term-limit measure by a margin of 65% to 35% but rejected a proposal that would have loosened the restrictions on selling Lakeland Electric.

Mawhinney said today he agrees with Davis’ interpretation of the charter and that “It’s unfortunate that the resign-to-run law precludes Phillip from being eligible to serve out the balance of his term, but it is paramount that we abide by the terms of the charter.”

What happens next

The City Commission is tasked with appointing the new commissioner under another city charter change approved by voters last year . Mayor Bill Mutz said today he will recommend that the City Commission interview all eight remaining applicants for the position at one time and then vote on the new commissioner on Oct. 17. It’s not clear whether Walker’s last meeting as a city commissioner will be Oct. 17 or Nov. 7, the date his resignation takes effect.

Commissioners had decided on Sept. 2 they would not interview the applicants for the commission vacancy, based on the preference several members expressed for Walker.

That decision was criticized at the Sept. 6 City Commission meeting by Terry Coney, current president of the NAACP Lakeland Branch, and Doris Moore Bailey, a past president of the organization. Both said it would be unfair to ignore the citizens who applied for the position in good faith. 

The seat that Walker is vacating on the non-partisan commission represents Lakeland’s northwest district, which is bordered on the east by Florida Avenue/U.S. 98 North and on the south by the CSX railroad tracks. (See a map here.) Applicants for the position were required to be residents of the district for at least one year before taking office.

The applicants for the position are:

  • Lolita Berrien, a member of the city Planning & Zoning Board and former presiding chair of the Neighborhood Association Coalition. She has been an administrative assistant in Polk public schools for 25 years and has been vice president of the Webster Park South Neighborhood Association.
  • Tracy Faison, a registered nurse who has been a business owner and president of Lake Gibson High Booster Club and Lakeland Storm Youth Football and Cheerleading. She is regional administrator for Pediatric Health Choice in Lakeland, Haines City and Daytona.
  • Daryl Forehand, a pastor and former correctional service consultant who is a previous president of the Lakeland Police Athletic League. He has served in the U.S. Navy and is currently pastor and diocesan bishop at Immanuel Temple Church and interim dean of W. L. Bonner College in Columbia, S.C.
  • Guy LaLonde Jr., a U.S. Navy veteran and Publix meat manager who owns Lakeland Moon Walk of Polk County Inc. and Under One Tent Events Inc. His volunteer work includes Relay for Life, United Way of Polk County and the Special Olympics of Polk County.
  • Veronica Rountree, a community health services advocate whose community activities include president of the Neighborhood Association Coalition, chair of the Code Enforcement Board and Police Advisory Board. She is a community advocate for Peace of Mind Community Healthcare Services.
  • Ricky Shirah, a former Publix truck driver who owns a towing business, has taken the Chamber of Commerce course for potential candidates has run for City Commission previously. He has run for City Commission three times, including for the northwest district seat in 2015 and an at-large seat in 2019.
  • Samuel Simmons, a former city of Lakeland accountant who is president of the Webster Park Civic Association, a past president of the Neighborhood Coalition Council and a co-founder of the Central Florida Business Diversity Council. He currently owns a housing and financial services consulting firm
  • Saga Stevin, who ran for mayor of Lakeland last year and lost to Mutz. She has been a platelet rich plasma technician and is a member of the board of directors for the Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom and Polk Education Foundation.