Lakeland Electric Remains Top of Mind as Strong-Mayor Proposal Is Unveiled

Control of Lakeland Electric was on the minds of several in the audience Monday night when Citizens for a Strong Lakeland released the first outline of its ideas for changing city government.

An incredulous Gene Strickland, a former Lakeland city manager and opponent of the group’s push for an “executive mayor,” expressed pleasant surprise that the proposal to change the city charter retains the language that makes it nearly impossible to sell the city-owned utility.

Also: Check The Ledger’s article on the proposal.

Then he seemed nearly as surprised that the strong mayor envisioned by the group would have no direct control over Lakeland Electric, the largest city department. Under the group’s proposal, the City Commission would hire and fire the utility’s general manager. (Scroll to the bottom to see the proposal.)

How can the city leader be a strong mayor when he doesn’t control the largest department? Strickland asked. “You’re taking away the biggest part of the city.”

Billy Townsend, a leader in the strong-mayor effort, answered that the group was sensitive to the utility issue and wanted to dispel suspicion that sale of the utility was a goal of the strong-mayor effort.

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Townsend conceded he had mixed feelings about control of the utility. “I think you have a good point,” he told Strickland. “I’m not sure how I feel about it.” The charter proposal the group released is a large document “with a lot of moving parts,” he said, and is still subject to revision.

And that was the point of the meeting, said Matt Doster, the consultant who is coordinating the efforts of the strong-mayor proponents. The document released Monday evening at the Larry Jackson Branch Library is the current city charter but with amendments that would put in place an executive mayor and the kinds of checks and balances that are needed with that system.

The next step is to get feedback from the public before drafting a final document that could be put before voters next year if the group can gather signatures from roughly 5,300 registered voters, Doster said.

Indeed, some of the 25 people at the public meeting pointed out discrepancies in the proposal that will be changed in the next revision.

The strong-mayor proponents are also working on an all-new 18-page city charter based on some model documents, but it’s not ready for release, Doster said, adding that he’s leaning toward amending the current charter rather than going with an all-new charter.

The guiding principles of the charter amendments, Doster said, are:

  • Creating an elected top executive.
  • Ensuring checks and balances between the mayor and City Commission.
  • Retaining term limits.

City Commissioner Jim Malless, the only current elected official at Monday’s meeting, said he approves of the proposal to put Lakeland Electric under the commission’s jurisdiction.

The move elevates the status of Lakeland Electric’s general manager and eliminates a layer of management between the commission and the utility, he said.

Here are some key points of the charter amendments proposed by Citizens for a Strong Lakeland:

The mayor

The mayor would be the city’s chief executive and control most of the city’s departments, much like a president or governor. The salary would be set by the City Commission and must be at least $100,000 per year.

City Commission

The commission is the legislative, policy-making body. It would remain at seven members; since the mayor would no longer be a commissioner, that position would be replaced by a third at-large member. Commissioners would select a chair and have the ability to also select a vice-chair. The proposal includes no change in commissioner salaries.

Term limits

City commissioners would be limited to three four-year terms. The mayor would be limited to two four-year terms. The total an individual could serve in elected city office would be 20 years; the current maximum is 16.

Districts

Commission districts remain the same, with one member representing each quadrant of the city and three commissioners elected at-large. While some people had urged the group to include single-member districts, in which only the residents of the district would vote for their representative, the group opted to maintain the current city-wide election for all seven seats.

Veto and override

The mayor would have the power to veto ordinances passed by the commission. The mayor would submit a budget to the commission and would have line-item veto power over changes made to the budget. Overriding a veto would take a vote of two-thirds of the commission — in this case five commissioners, even when all seven commissioners aren’t present.

Malless raised a concern that a mayor could time the vote on a controversial issue when a commissioner is unable to attend a meeting, making it harder to override a veto.

Chief administrative officer

The charter would allow the mayor to hire a chief administrative officer to help with day-to-day running of city operations. The mayor would set the salary, and the officer would serve at the pleasure of the mayor.

City attorney, city clerk

Both of these positions are hired by the mayor subject to a majority vote of the commission. In keeping with the balance-of-powers concept, these positions would serve both the legislative and executive divisions.

The document