The group pushing for a strong mayor in Lakeland thought they’d be hearing back from city officials soon after they filed documents last week that said they are ready to begin collecting signatures to put their proposal on an election ballot.

They found out today they’ll likely not hear anything from the city until after they collect and submit more than 6,000 signatures from registered voters.

Lakeland’s city charter authorizes the city clerk to review the group’s documents to make sure everything is in order before they spend the time and money to collect signatures, said Matt Doster, a Tallahassee political consultant advising Committee for a Strong Lakeland.

But City Attorney Tim McCausland disagreed. His advice to city commissioners: Stay neutral in the debate. Using city resources may be interpreted as helping one side or the other.

“Only act when you’re obligated to act,” he said. And the time to act, he said, is after the group submits its petition with the required signatures.

The issue came up at today’s City Commission meeting when Commissioner Jim Malless asked McCausland if the documents submitted last week by Citizens for a Strong Lakeland were in the appropriate form.

Malless said he wants to avoid a negative perception if the city waits until after all the signatures are collected to tell the petitioners there was a problem from the beginning.

“I think it’s appropriate that we tell the public whether this petition is appropriate,” he said.  “I can’t believe we can’t tell the public this is the correct form.”

Citizens for a Strong Lakeland has drafted an update of the city charter that changes the form of government from a council-manager form to an “executive mayor” form in which an elected mayor serves as the city’s chief executive and the commission becomes the legislative branch, similar to the federal or state government. Collecting signatures from 10 percent of registered voters will authorize an election, likely by mail, on whether the updated charter should be implemented.

One of the problems, McCausland said, is that the city charter contains no clear standards for a citizen group proposing an overhaul of the entire charter, as Citizens for a Strong Lakeland is doing.

The portions of the city charter that address citizen initiatives and referenda refer only to efforts to pass a new ordinance or repeal an existing one, he said.

Here are those passages:

Sec. 88. ‐ Initiative and referendum.

(a) Initiative. The qualified voters of the city shall have power to propose ordinances to the city commission and, if the city commission fails to adopt an ordinance so proposed without any change in substance, such voters, shall have the power to adopt or reject it at a city election, provided that such power shall not extend to the budget or capital program or any ordinance relating to appropriation of money, levy of taxes or salaries of city officers or employees.

(b) Referendum. The qualified voters of the city shall have power to require reconsideration by the city commission of any adopted ordinance and, if the city commission fails to repeal an ordinance so reconsidered, to approve or reject it at a city election, provided that such power shall not extend to the budget or capital program or any emergency ordinance or ordinance relating to appropriation of money, levy of taxes or salaries of city officers or employees.

However, Committee for a Strong Lakeland’s attorney, Mark Herron of Tallahassee, say both state law and the Lakeland Code of Ordinances allow citizens to amend city charters by ballot and Section 89 of the Lakeland city charter sets up a procedure that authorizes the city clerk to review citizen petition forms before signatures are gathered and to even draw up an acceptable petition form.

Doster says the group isn’t asking the city to draw up the petition form — their attorney has already done that — but they’d like their proposed form reviewed before they begin the time-consuming effort to collect signatures.

Here are the documents the Committee for a Strong Lakeland submitted to the city, including a letter to the city clerk, legal rationale, affidavit of petitioners, the proposed changes to the city charter and the petition form the committee plans to use.

At today’s meeting, several commissioners said asking their staff to review the petition documents is no different than reviewing a zoning application or other citizen requests to make sure they are in the appropriate form.

Commissioner Don Selvage said on the one hand he doesn’t think the commission should take sides on the mayor issue, but on the other hand: “Virtually every department receives petitions. In all those processes, staff manages to tell the applicant, ‘You need to do this before we accept the application.’ I thought the (city) clerk should (review the petitions.) … Don’t we have an obligation as staff to tell the petitioner that all is in order?”

McCausland responded that the city could do that “if there were clear guidelines.”

Mayor Howard Wiggs told McCausland that his stand against reviewing the documents is “potentially taking a stand against it. If they collect signatures and then you turn it down, that will have thwarted the process, delayed it, costing money.”

McCausland responded that if the commission acts when there’s no duty to act, “you may pick a side.”

Commissioner Edie Yates sided with McCausland, saying he’s the “master of all things city, but doesn’t necessarily have to opine about all things state.”

That’s a compelling point, Selvage said. “If the charter says the petition must comply with state law, is it fair to ask the city attorney to rule on state law?”

In the end, Malless made a motion to direct McCausland to review the petition to determine if it is sufficient under state law and the city charter.

The motion failed 3-4, with Malless, Wiggs and Justin Troller supporting it, and Selvage, Yates, Bill Read and Phillip Walker voting against.

After the meeting, Doster said he would confer with the group’s attorney to determine if any further steps need to be taken before the group begins collecting signatures.

Later in the afternoon, he issued a statement on behalf of Committee for a Strong Lakeland that read in part:

“We find it inexplicable that the city has construed a legal requirement to withhold guidance to citizens of Lakeland on simple questions of form and procedure. It fails the smell test and doesn’t fit within the basic idea of government by the people.

“We continue our work enthusiastically, though questioning whether the city will raise some procedural or technical objection after our petitions are submitted. Today’s discussion comes off as a pretext for delay and discouragement and sends a chilling effect to any other citizens’ groups that might consider the petition process.”

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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