The next few months will bring us another race for Lakeland mayor. Currently squaring off are city commissioners Gow Fields and Jim Verplanck. We’re reaching out to both men to speak to the community. We’re in it for the whole race, and hope to have many conversations with both candidates during the campaign. First up is Gow Fields. Last Tuesday, we spoke a little about this emerging medium, CSX, and what he’d do with a magic wand.
• Why Now?
First appointed to the City Commission in 1992, Gow Fields is running for Mayor during a time when many wouldn’t want to be in office. “We got some interesting challenges and opportunities before us as a community and a city. We’re at a very important juncture. I think the skills set and the capabilities that I bring to the table can be very helpful at this point and time. I have to make sure the voters have at least the chance to decide that. If you don’t offer yourself, then they can’t consider you.” said Fields.
In 2002, Fields publicly considered not running for reelection, “During that time there were quite a bit of things going on that I felt discouraged by people misunderstanding. What it was that I was trying to accomplish. And I spent too much time focusing on the negative comments people were making as opposed to the big picture of what was trying to be accomplished. After I got past what was being said, I got my eyes on what was needed to be done. It was an easy decision to make.”
Fields believes that too many critics of the City Commission develop their opinions without all the facts, “One of the things that makes public service difficult is a lot of times critics believe they have the same information set that the person who is there does. And what seems like a logical conclusion to them may not be so logical if they had the rest of the information that the actual person in the seat had in from of them as well. And then too, it doesnt mean that aren’t mistakes made, but when you have to make a decision right then, it cannot be put off until next year, next month. We all know more once another year goes by. It’s the old tale of the Monday morning quarterback.”
• On Information Flow
Fields acknowledges that he can’t give the public all the information he possesses, “If it was possible to give it all to the public, then we could conduct polls to see how the public feels about everything. We could do it instantaneously and it would be real easy to run government.“
However, Fields does state that many citizens don’t take the time needed to get the information that is available, “What I find interesting is, as much information that is on the city’s website, including if they want to sit through the entire meetings, or scroll to the portion they are interested in, there are far less of that than the people who take their snippets from the newspaper. They’re taking one reporter’s opinion as to what happened in the meeting as opposed to reading the minutes.”
With the state mandate to cut city revenue through lower property taxes, Fields says prioritizing city services will be a priority for the new Mayor and city commission, “We’ll have to look at how we deliver what the people ultimately say they want their local government to deliver. Does that mean that we do it as a public/private partnership? Does that mean that we not do it at all, and the private sector has to decide if there is a way for them to provide it? Or does that mean we do without it all together?”
How will Fields find out what the community wants? “One way we have attempted to do it through a public/private partnership is with Lakeland Vision. The county has attempted to do it with Polk Vision. And that is to give people the chance to tell us what is most important to them.”
Fields acknowledges he doesn’t hear from every member of the community, “Now do we have as many people participating in those efforts as we would like? No. We still have people that believe their opinion doesn’t count, so why give it? So we’ve got work to do there, making sure people understand that just because what you said did not result into legislation, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t considered.”
Fields emphasized that the public needs try to get information at the source, “The biggest thing I would want more people to pay attention to is that there is probably more to the story than you can get in a snippet. And if you would really like to know why someone took the position that they did, it’s easier to ask than it is to assume.”
• On Gen-Y
Fields has found the younger generation more than willing to participate in the process, “Some professional organizations have sprouted and are moving forward; some leadership programs that are reaching younger age individuals. I see a great deal of promise there.”
However, he wants to reach out to that population, “We need to make them feel they have a greater stake in the community. When we do that it helps us to retain and attract other very talented individuals to the employment base of this area as well.”
Fields observed that the younger community does gather information in ways others do not, “They really know how to stay on top of things. It’s amazing how clearly they see what the possible solutions are versus those that get their information from more traditional sources. That in itself has been amazing as an observer.”
• On CSX and Commuter Rail
Fields quickly states “We are the freight superhighway.” But he sees the rail as a solution, “It’s my belief that if we came up with another mode of transit using the rail lines going through the urban cores of the various cities and making it primarily for passenger use we can solve a number of problems. But that means that we have to come up with a freight rail corridor for the freight movements.”
“I’ve had people to tell me that I’ve sold out to Orlando, or that Orlando promised me something. Or that they promised us a bill of goods and we fell for it. I’ve had people to say we got weak at the knees and we folded to CSX. I’ve heard it all. None of those people have been with me in the heated discussions and the going toe-to-toe. They haven’t been there, but they can tell me exactly what I did,” he said.
Fields did emphasize where he thought some of the public had gone off-track, “One of the common things that I have seen repeatedly misstated in the newspaper and in people’s letters to the editor and blog comments. Federal legislation allows for Amtrak to use existing freight rail lines when there is capacity available. Amtrak can’t say to the owner of the rail line “I’m coming to at 8 o’clock, move all your freight trains off’ That’s been the common misperception. If CSX has no capacity and no time to put an Amtrak train on going from Lakeland to Tampa, then Amtrak can’t go.”
Fields stated he wants to move the freight corridor out of downtown Lakeland and Plant City. (Note, we spoke before the release of a report looking at the costs of alternate routes.) He did believe there were two better options, “The two (routes) that looked the most promising would actually require becoming a multi-use corridor where they would put it in the Van Fleet trail corridor and then it would become like other multi-use trails in the parts of the country where they have active trails with freight rail.” He added that the concept has worked in other places, “It’s not a new concept.”
Fields understands there is opposition to such a plan, but chalks it up to a lack of experience, “There are a lot of people here from other places that have been experiencing and seen a lot of these things. We don’t necessarily listen to them. And they talk in terms in possibilities, as opposed to thinking everything is bad before you get a chance to make it work.”
Fields points to figures that show in the 13 county I-4 corridor 95% of the jobs are within 5 miles of the Interstate or a toll road. He cites those figures for the need for a regional commutter rail, “If I got to wave a magic wand over this, what would the the state-wide solution be? A commuter rail type solution would be very effective. Where you could use the connections of the population centers to help people have another mode of transportation to get to and from work and to move within and between regions. And this has been part of our picture of the solution. And it doesn’t get much coverage.”
Fields stated he believes there is more than one path to the end. That he and others are all looking for the same goal: placing commuter rail throughout the region, “We need the result. I don’t have to be the one saying ‘I got it right.’ I just want the result.”
Many times Fields has stated it is better to work within a system. That’s as true today, “All of these things affecting us are forces outside the geographic footprint of Lakeland. The solution — so that we don’t get killed by it — is going to require us to work with people outside Lakeland to get it done,” he said.