In preparation for next Tuesday’s City Commission election, lkldnow sat down with each of the three candidates and asked them the same questions — some serious and some light-hearted. The idea is to give voters a chance to get to know each of the three candidates better. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our interview with Alberto “AJ” Rodriguez.
While the race is citywide, the winner will represent the northwest quadrant of the city — everything in city limits north of Main Street and west of Florida Avenue. Incumbent Walker is being challenged by Alberto “AJ” Rodriguez and Ricky Shirah. (QAs with Shirah and Walker appear separately on lkldnow.com.)
Why do you want to be a city commissioner?
I want to be a Lakeland city commissioner because I have a vision for the city of Lakeland, and I believe it’s a vision that most citizens share: Make Lakeland a grander place not just for us, but for posterity, and I feel I really want to be part of that process. It’s been my dream ever since I was in high school to be in public service and to serve what I consider to be my hometown.
It’s not for the pay, is it?
No, no. I look at it as a labor of love.
What’s your No. 1 issue?
The No. 1 issue would be focusing on economic development because economic development is the way we can solve a plethora of issues. If you look at gang violence, for example, you look at studies of places that are doing well economic (and) people don’t join gangs very much. Economic development is a great way to prevent gang growth and gang violence. Economic growth is also a great way to solve our budget shortfall issue.
You’re saying that if young people see hope and have jobs, then that’s how you solve the gang problem?
Absolutely. When you spend money for public safety, you’re doing a more reactionary policy and that does not adequately address gang violence. Sure, it suppresses it, but it doesn’t prevent the factors in which people join gangs. Now, building parks and having after-school programs are great, but that ends when the people graduate from high school and they need to find a job. And when there’s not enough opportunity for those impoverished communities, people realize it’s more beneficial for them to go into the black market and dealing with drugs and gangs as opposed to working 40 hours at a minimum-wage job which gets them nowhere.
Do you have any specific proposals for economic development?
I have three proposals on my website for economic development. The chief one is working on better tax incentives to encourage business growth. There’s also Ignite Lakeland to develop our downtown area. And there’s Gigabit Lakeland, which is a great opportunity to the city.
Executive mayor or city manager?
I favor executive mayor as of now. I believe the chief executive of our city administration should be held accountable directly by the people. It’s what we have at the federal level. When you look at the federal level, the president in the Constitution is referred to as the chief executive. He’s in charge of basically the day-to-day operations of the federal government. Now, you don’t see Congress electing that individual; you see the people electing that individual. The people who think there might be more corruption under that system, that’s incorrect. You can look at the federal level for an example. You see politicians who are bought off, they are often in Congress. It’s a lot easier to hide cronyism when there’s more moving parts. But when there’s a central figure, the spotlight’s on that individual.
When people around Florida hear “Lakeland,” they think…
Right now they think it’s just a small town in between Tampa and Orlando. People come here for our colleges and then they leave.
In four years, when people around Florida hear “Lakeland,” I want them to think…
Great place, but mainly a place of opportunity for growth, not just for families but for young aspiring entrepreneurs.
When I want to show somebody what I like about Lakeland, I take them to…
I take them downtown and I take them to the Lakeside mall as well as the Cobb. I think those are great areas that you should take tourists to. Aside from Tampa and Orlando, we have the best downtown area in Central Florida.
People say city government needs to be more “customer-centric.” What one or two steps should be taken along those lines?
I would have a booth at every First Friday. I’ve been campaigning at First Friday and I’ve noticed that not a single commissioner attends those massive events. The second thing is I would have a stronger social media presence. I don’t believe there’s a very active social media presence as far as commissioners go. The city (administration) has done a good job, but it’s something the commission has been lacking on.
How far should the city go in making its fiber network available to small businesses and residents?
As far as we need to go as long as it’s affordable. There are ways to do it, even if it’s by a long-term plan by phases.
Even to the extent of making Internet a public utility operated by the city?
Absolutely. I don’t care if we get a public utility or public-private partnership, as long as Gigabit Lakeland becomes a reality. I absolutely support it. It’s not a matter of if we do it, it’s when we do it because it’s the future.
The biggest mistake made by city government in the last four years was …
How they handled the fire impact fee. It was fundamentally deceptive. The word fee when you think about it makes you think, “Oh, if I don’t do anything wrong, I’m not going to have to worry about it.” It turns out it was a tax. You hear fire, you think it’s for the Fire Department. Well, guess what, ladies and gentlemen, it was actually for the general fund. Did they try to look for spending cuts first before they tried to take more of our money? Absolutely not. They also started out with the needy, highest rate possible. I think people would have been more receptive to the plan if it had been more realistic and if it had been less deceptive by the city administration.
Where are you most likely to be seen on a Saturday morning?
I’m probably going to be spending time with my family. Or once in a while I’m going to be out at Munn Park or out by Lake Mirror playing chess.
What distinguishes you from the other two candidates?
Passion. I’m the only candidate who has a website where you can see where I stand on my platform. It goes beyond bullet points. I’m the only candidate that is an outsider. I haven’t run before. I’m doing this out of the passion that I have for this city and public service. I’m also bilingual, which distinguishes me quite a great deal. I honestly feel I channel the anger that some people have for the businesses disenfranchisement they’ve had with the city.
What’s your assessment of the other two?
I think Phillip Walker is a great guy; he has the best of intentions, but has been a poor commissioner, hasn’t been urgent or proactive, and in my opinion he may not have understood his job description when it comes to actually being a commissioner. He’s been absent at a lot of events. I’ve been part of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce since its inception in 2007. I have seen every commissioner attend our events at least twice but never Walker. I’ve never seen him attend the Business Advisory Council that was under Gow Fields that I attended. And he hasn’t been active with the Hispanic Advisory Council, which is what I’m one right now. In fact, he was against it.
What about Shirah?
I think the biggest thing Ricky has to offer is perseverance. To be able to run as many times as he has without getting elected is a testament to his character.
When I go to a coffee shop or a bar, I order…
At the coffee shop, I’ll be ordering apple juice and maybe a bagel. And when I go to a bar, which is on a very rare occasion, I’ll probably be ordering a Heineken or a Corona.
The city Communications Department recorded interviews with all three candidates. Here’s the one with Rodriguez.