Voters Will Decide Strong Mayor Issue in November

Lakeland voters will decide in November whether to change the form of city government. City commissioners voted 5-2 this morning to set November for the vote on a proposal to change from the council-manager form to a strong mayor format.

Representatives of Committee for a Strong Lakeland, the group that collected enough voter signatures to put the issue on the ballot, had suggested an August special election, saying the outcome of a summer vote would lead to an orderly November election.

Their reasoning: Voters will know in the fall whether they will be electing a strong mayor who runs the city administration or a mayor under the current system who chairs the City Commission and serves as the city’s chief ambassador.

That argument resonated with current Mayor Howard Wiggs and Commissioner Justin Troller, who voted against the November election date.

Other commissioners said they favored the November date because a decision this important should be placed before as many voters as possible and November elections historically have larger turnouts than summertime special elections.

Also this morning:

  • Commissioners reviewed the language about the strong mayor initiative that voters will see on the November ballot; they bogged down over how to characterize the way the proposal affects term limits.
  • Former City Attorney Joe Mawhinney, an opponent of the strong mayor initiative, drew a surprised hush when he revealed the strong mayor proposal does not specify the length of a mayoral term.

The strong mayor proposal, essentially a redraft of Lakeland’s city charter, says the mayor is limited to eight consecutive years or two consecutive terms, whichever is longer, Mawhinney said, but he said he could not find any place in the document where the term of office is defined.

The wording in the Strong Lakeland proposal reads: “No one shall serve, or but for resignation would have served, more than eight (8) consecutive years, or two (2) complete terms, whichever is longer, in the position of Mayor.”

I’ve sent an email to representatives of Committee for a Strong Lakeland to see if they have a response to Mawhinney’s implication that the charter proposal is flawed because it leaves open the question of how long a mayor’s term would be.

Commissioners discussed McCausland’s  proposed ballot language that would be titled “Amending Lakeland’s Charter Changing to a Mayor/Commission Plan with the Mayor as Chief Executive.” McCausland’s recommended ballot summary, which is limited to 75 words under state law, would read:

Should Lakeland change its government to a Mayor-Commission Plan; where the Mayor becomes Chief Executive, with authority over all City operations and employees, except Lakeland Electric, has veto power over decisions of the Commission with 2/3 vote to override; changing the City Commission’s governing authority to legislative authority; eliminating the City Manager; creating a Chief Administrative Officer serving at the pleasure of the Mayor; expanding term limits for elected officials; creating an additional Commissioner.

Tampa attorney Ben Hill, representing Committee for a Strong Lakeland, submitted a slightly edited version:

Should Lakeland change its government to a Mayor-Commission Plan wherin the Mayor becomes Chief Executive, with authority over City operations and employees, except Lakeland Electric, with veto power over City Commission enacted legislation, which can be overriden by Commission’s two-thirds vote; changing City Commission’s governing authority to legislative; eliminating the City Manager; creating a Chief Administrative Officer serving at the pleasure of the Mayor; limiting the Mayor to two terms; creating an additional Commissioner?

The main point of contention among commissioners was what to call the proposal’s effects on term limits:

  • The current city charter limits an officeholder to no more than 12 years on the City Commission or 16 years combined as city commissioner and mayor.
  • The Committee for a Strong Mayor proposal maintains the 12-year limit for commissioners but adds up to two terms as mayor.

Commissioners ended up asking City Attorney Tim McCausland to update the ballot language taking feedback from today’s meeting into account. The commission is expected to consider updated language at its April 17 meeting.

Here is a look at how the strong mayor issue  unfolded at this morning’s meeting, seen through tweets posted by LkldNow: