UPDATED 9:11 p.m. — Bill Read was re-elected to the Lakeland City Commission today, but it will take a Dec. 3 runoff to determine the victor in the other commission race on the ballot. Top vote-getters Chad McLeod and Carole Philipson face each other in a runoff because no candidate won a majority in their four-way contest.
Charter amendments: Two of the proposed changes to the City Charter passed, while the most controversial one failed. That was Amendment 3, which would have loosened the restrictions on selling Lakeland Electric; it was turned down decisively with 35% in favor and 65% opposed.
City Commission Justin Troller, probably the most vocal public critic of Amendment 3, said the message of today’s vote is that “people value the asset we have in Lakeland Electric and its contribution to the quality of life.”
Amendment 1, which was sold as a housekeeping package that updates languages and makes minor changes, passed with a 51.9% favorable vote.
Amendment 2, which tightens term limits for the mayor and commission, was approved by a margin of 65.4% to 34.6%.
Four municipalities in Polk County held elections today, and the combined turnout was 13.76%. Lakeland’s turnout was 15.36%, City Clerk Kelly Koos said.
Commission races: In the race for the Northeast seat on the commission, Read polled 70.2% of the vote to 29.8% for challenger Jiwa Farrell.
The runoff for the at-large seat will compel candidates McLeod and Philipson to differentiate themselves. Both took similar positions on most major issues.
One disagreement was whether the City Commission should have given Lakeland Regional Health forgiveness on its scheduled lease increase. Philipson, a former vice president at the hospital, disagreed with the commission’s vote to freeze the payment, while McLeod agreed with it.
McLeod, the 37-year-old owner of a small public relations firm, positioned himself as a father with a young family positioning Lakeland for economic growth.
Philipson, 71, emphasized her experience as a health-care executive who has served on several city boards over the years and wants to build a community that young people will want to return to.
They are seeking the at-large seat vacated by Troller, who was forced out by term limits after serving 12 years.
Reached at a campaign celebration at Union Hall, McLeod said he realized from the beginning a runoff was a strong possibility. He said he would work toward a strong turnout over the next month and reach out to Shirah and Terrell to seek their support.
Philipson, too, said a runoff was “not unexpected.” She was with donors and supporters at Federal Bar when the news came, and they immediately began strategizing for the runoff, she said: “Everybody was ready to get back to work.”
Background: commission races
The four-way race for an at-large seat on the non-partisan commission included two newcomers to electoral politics and two candidates who have been unsuccessful in previous races.
The newcomers, McLeod and Philipson, were both well-funded and considered pro-business, although Lakeland’s two main business-oriented political action committees diverged in their support.
McLeod’s main endorsement was from Lakeland First, a political action committee whose funders come from a handful of the city’s larger businesses.
Philipson was endorsed by BusinessVoice Inc., the political action committee affiliated with the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce. She also received endorsements from Lakeland Association of Realtors, West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association, Lakeland Professional Firefighters Local 4173, West Central Florida Labor Council AFL-CIO.
Shirah, who owns a towing business, has previously run for City Commission seats five times, according to The Ledger, the state House of Representatives twice last year and the County Commission.
Terrell, an educator, twice opposed Colleen Burton for the seat she holds in the Florida House of Representatives.
The race for the northwest district on the commission pitted Ferrell, a newcomer to electoral politics, against first-term incumbent Read.
Farrell, 41, became involved in politics as an advocate and lobbyist for the Lupus Research Alliance.
Read, 71, faced no opposition when he first ran for office four years ago; he ran a low-key race this time, using commission meetings as a campaign podium but eschewing modern conventions such as political promotion via web and social media.
Background: charter amendments
Dozens of changes to Lakeland’s city charter — think of it as the document establishing the municipality and setting its form of government — were recommended by a Charter Review Commission appointed by city commissioners. They met monthly during 2016 and 2017 and made multiple recommendations for changes.
City commissioners earlier this year decided to put the changes up for a vote in the Nov. 5 election and divided the proposals into three ballot questions.
Amendment 3 was the most controversial; it would loosen the requirements for selling Lakeland Electric or the city’s water utilities.
For decades, sale of a city utility in Lakeland has required a yes vote from two-thirds of all people registered to vote in the city — a virtual impossibility in a city where municipal election turnout rarely tops 20%.
The amendment would reduce the barrier to a vote of five of the seven city commissioners and 65% of all people who actually vote in a general election (It can’t be a special election).
Amendment 2 would tighten term limits for Lakeland’s mayor and city commissioners.
Current term limits were put in place in the 1990s; there were no term limits before that. Under the current setup, a person who is elected both commissioner and mayor can serve a maximum of four consecutive terms. A person who leaves office can later run for election and the term limit clock starts over again.
The amendment would reduce it to three terms in the course of a lifetime for any combination of commissioner and mayor terms; it does not apply to the current commissioners.
Amendment 1 was billed as mostly a house-cleaning measure that updates the charter by making the language gender-neutral and eliminating outdated references, such as a lengthy legal description of long-changed city limits, and defunct organizations such as the Hospital Board.
But opponents said they were wary of any proposals that group many unrelated items together. And some people said they were skeptical of provisions that tie city commissioners’ pay increases to the across-the-board raises given general city employees.