Longtime Lakeland neighborhood activist Samuel Simmons was unanimously selected by the Lakeland City Commission on Monday as an interim city commissioner, to take the seat held for nearly 13 years by Phillip Walker.
Walker put in his notice to resign in November as he ran for the Florida House, but he lost to newcomer Jennifer Canady. Following the defeat in the August primary, Walker applied to fill the Northwest district seat but was told by City Attorney Palmer Davis that he would exceed term limits.
Simmons was selected over seven other candidates who applied to fill the seat until next year’s election. He will officially take office Nov. 7.
The commission seat represents Lakeland’s northwest quadrant, which is west of Florida Avenue/U.S. 98 North and north of the CSX railroad tracks. See a map of commission districts. The seat holder is required to have lived in the district for at least one year before taking office.
Simmons is a former city of Lakeland accountant who served as president of the Webster Park South Neighborhood Association for 20 years, was the first president of the city’s Neighborhood Association Coalition and co-founded the Central Florida Business Diversity Council. He currently owns a housing and financial services consulting firm that builds affordable housing.
Following the vote, Simmons said he was in shock.
”But I’m very excited to be appointed to the Lakeland City Commission and I look forward to working with all of you in serving the citizens of Lakeland,” Simmons said. “I again want to thank you for your confidence in appointing me in this position.”
Simmons joked that he was glad the commissioners had a short memory because he had come before them to fight for issues important to the neighborhood associations.
“I’ve come before this commission several times in the past 20 years and argued passionately for the quality of life for the residents in the Northwest,” Simmons said. “And I may have stepped on some toes in planning and zoning.”
In his job interview Friday with city commissioners, Simmons discussed affordable housing, something he is so passionate about that he has begun working with the city to build homes that are more economical.
“My vision for Lakeland moving forward is to review growth management models through which the city can identify scenarios that would meet its desired outcomes, such as expansion with land reservation,” Simmons said. “Within the northwest district, my vision includes affordable housing for both for sale and rental units. This includes research to identify ways to supplement rents and mortgages.”
He explained that when he worked in the city’s finance department, he served under the local housing finance manager and oversaw a multimillion-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he monitored and adjusted as needed.
“I find the issue of growth management to be most intriguing because it affects all citizens of every quadrant of the city,” Simmons said. “Growth is already here, and it continues to come. As a city commission, we have the authority to shape how the city of Lakeland will look and feel within the next five, 10, 15 and 20 years.”
He said he also wants to address or mitigate the homeless issue, as homeless persons from other areas often come to Lakeland after hearing about the amenities provided by shelters like Lighthouse Ministries, the Salvation Army and Talbot House Ministries.
And he said he wanted to run for the open seat because he wants to ensure the voice of the northwest district is heard and fairly represented.
“I believe we govern honestly when we’re able to empathize with those whom our decisions affect,” Simmons said.
With the guidance of City Attorney Davis, the commission decided Friday to have each sitting commissioner provide a list of their top four candidates, in no particular order. City Clerk Kelly Koos tabulated the list of candidates, noting there were three people who clearly made the top three, while two people tied for fourth.
The five top candidates, alphabetically, were Tracy Faison, Guy LaLonde Jr., Veronica Rountree, Ricky Shirah and Sam Simmons. Koos noted that Simmons received four votes for the top spot – a majority of the seven commissioners.
The Lakeland City Commission then ranked those five candidates by preference. The results were:
Commissioner Mike Musick made a motion to appoint Simmons to fill the vacated City Commission seat, seconded by Chad McLeod and the motion was approved unanimously.
After the vote, Commissioner Sarah Roberts McCarley encouraged the seven other candidates to run for the office and stay involved, noting she had put her name in the hat to be an interim commissioner when Michael Dunn was forced to step down over a manslaughter charge. Commissioners chose former Commissioner Don Selvage to fill the seat, but Roberts McCarley then ran for the seat and was elected.
Walker offered to assist Simmons in any way he could.
“Congratulations to you, brother. We go back a few years, and we’ve had some hard knock and deep discussions about things,” Walker said. “And I’m sure if I can be of help to you. No, I would not be in your way at all. I respect the fact that you will be elected to serve the Northwest district. Now, I will say that you will be sworn to serve the Northwest district and I will be one of your residents. And I’m sure we will have conversation as time goes on again.”
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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