The Big 3 Must Go; and Other Thoughts on Rescuing Lakeland from Itself


I haven’t written much about the meltdown at LPD because The Ledger has done an exemplary job dogging the story. The reporters and editors and even business management deserve kudos for keeping at it and committing lawyers and money. Well done.

But now that it’s all exploded — and I’m back from the old country — I want to offer a few thoughts about how we can get out of this.

By “this”, I do not primarily mean the rampant sex. I have covered and observed many public safety agencies in my time as reporter and citizen. Every single one of them, at one time or another, in every location, has generated an extensive sex scandal. I got my “big break” as a reporter when the married chief of the Palatka Police Department had an affair with a female detective who only a few years earlier had sued the St. Johns County sheriff’s office for sexual harassment after having multiple affairs there. That story wrote itself for months. Even St. Grady’s sheriff’s office has had its sex scandals. There was one at the jail a few years back that I covered for the Tribune. Humans thrown together in any organization tend to find a way to see each other naked.

Add the built-in testosterone and hierarchies of public safety agencies, and you will have sex on the job. Experience tells us it’s inevitable. Look at the military. The question for leaders — if they can avoid temptation themselves — is how to create a culture that minimizes misbehavior as much as possible and does not let impunity fester. Because where sexual impunity festers, other types of impunity fester.

This seems to be the core of the matter at LPD — and at Lakeland’s government and civic structures generally. I’ve been writing about the banal impunity that surrounds the petty power in this city for a long time. It has finally, thoroughly, come home to roost.

I remember first really noticing it during the CSX battle, when the people fighting the deal with their time and effort were treated like pariahs by the Lakeland government and civic structures that should have joined the fight. Through that experience and many others that followed, I came to realize the iron rule of Lakeland civic culture:

The more important the issue and/or the deeper the corruption, the less we must discuss it in public. Our leaders, with their Leadership Lakeland pedigrees, will handle these matters wisely in private in order to avoid divisiveness.

This is a human pathology. You see it elsewhere. But it seems uniquely acute here. Check out this exchange from the Lakeland City Commission agenda study on Friday, as written by The Ledger. It’s an account of Lakeland’s publicly elected officials negotiating with themselves over what they can ask the police chief whom they employ about the utter dysfunction of her agency. Check it out. It’s stunning.

[Mayor Gow] Fields emphasized that Selvage needed to be clear about what he wanted the chief to talk about.

“Do you want something in particular addressed?” Fields asked Selvage.

Fields said he’s heard numerous comments from residents, including that Womack should be fired or she shouldn’t be made the scapegoat. He said many concerns by commissioners were addressed during private meetings that included Womack, Thomas and others. [emphasis mine]

“Let me try again,” Selvage said. “I want to know if sergeants, lieutenants and captains have had classes on ethics.”

“What procedures on searches are being reemphasized? I want to be assured there is proactive leadership over there.”

In the end, commissioners agreed that they will ask questions but not discuss details of the internal investigations into the officers involved in the sex scandal.

What? They agreed to what? Under pain of what? If you’re afraid as a body to ask your own police chief any question in a public forum about rampant corruption and incompetence at her agency, what is the point of having you?

And I should say, I think Don Selvage is almost certainly the best of the bunch, along with Keith Merritt. I think he’s trying to do the right thing fairly. But this exchange with Gow is truly amazing.

Do you want something in particular addressed?

The correct answer to Gow’s question, which should not be asked in the first place, is: “…whatever the hell I want addressed on behalf of the people I represent. And if she doesn’t address it, I’ll put a motion on the floor right there to fire Doug Thomas because I can’t directly fire her.”

Make no mistake. That’s where we are.

In fairness, I’m not sure how much good any further gnashing of teeth will do, even if it’s absurd for commissioners to impose speech pre-conditions on themselves. It’s time for action — quickly.

Fortunately, Lakeland has a pretty good model for moving beyond this impotent leadership paralysis. The Polk School District faced a similar kind of factional torpor just a year or so ago. And I think Lakeland, as a city and government, can look to the re-establishment of adult supervision there with hope. That brings me to my recommendations.

1) The city attorney, police chief, and city manager have to go. And we need interim — not permanent — replacements for each for a year or so. This the John Stewart model. It worked at PCSB; I think it’s the best hope for working here. I feel certain we can find a John Stewart equivalent for each of those positions, either here or elsewhere. And even if we can’t, it’s not like we’re getting any strategic organizational leadership from our leaders today. It will be addition by subtraction in a couple instances, at least.

The pension scandal for McCausland should have been the last straw. If he’d spent as much time working with Jerry Hill and anyone else to develop a legal strategy and framework for purging problem officers and reforming LPD’s attention to law, maybe we’d have a reform path to follow. Instead, he’s fought to keep outside referral income and wriggle out of his defined contribution retirement plan.

For Chief Womack, I have no doubt that many of these LPD problems predate her. And maybe she has, in fact, sought to correct some of them. I don’t know enough to speak intelligently about that. However, I know something about public safety organizations with powerful unions. I’ve covered many of them. If you’re intent on reforming a police culture, you will make enemies from among your own people. That means you can’t afford to make enemies outside your agency, too, among the powers that can help you.

Whether or not Womack has confronted her own people, it’s undeniable that she’s made enemies unnecessarily of Jerry Hill’s office and The Ledger. The local newspaper and state attorney’s office are arguably a police agency’s most important stakeholders. When they’re working together against you, you won’t win. Especially if they’re right.

If Womack was really concerned about the culture of her agency, she should have been building personal bridges to the state attorney, to the local newspaper, to federal agencies and prosecutors, to any external force that could help her get her agency under control. Instead, she picked stupid fights over public records and sealing grand jury finding.

If you are going to project an “us vs. them” mentality to the world outside your agency, you had better make sure the “us” isn’t having crazy sex all over the place on duty and screwing up prosecution after prosecution. And the “them” can’t be women subjected to humiliating rogue searches involving their underwear. That strategic incompetence alone is enough to justify cutting her loose.

I wonder if Jerry Hill would make a senior lawyer in his office available to run LPD for a year. Or maybe Jerry himself would do it. I feel certain he could get special dispensation from the governor. Something to think about. Somebody should call him.

And finally, there’s City Manager Doug Thomas. I play basketball with him. I like him personally. We’re not exactly friends — but perhaps friendly acquaintances. So take this with that knowledge. He’s been city manager for about a decade. And he has always been the consummate technocrat. Freed from outside interference or political pressure, he knows his way up and down actuarial reports and position papers. You want a relentlessly rational and smart approach to providing a service in a vacuum? Doug can provide it. The problem is that virtually nothing in the public realm happens in a vacuum. Interests of all kind — monied, religious, artistic, civic, charitable, law enforcement, whatever — seek to impose their wills on the provision of government services. And they chip away relentlessly at the technocracy. Technocrats who don’t fight for their technocracy lose it to the factions that will.

It’s not Doug’s job to run the police department; but it is his job to make sure that Chief Womack isn’t alienating institutions whose support is vital. I don’t think Doug’s been the worst city manager ever. But I do think, at this point, he has for too long shown a pattern of ignoring or avoiding the elephants in the room by focusing on the technical minutiae of governing. Now those elephants are stampeding him and us. I don’t think he can fix that. His approach to getting big things done requires too much avoidance of conflict. We need someone, for a short period of time, whose job is conflict. Period.

2) End the culture of private-meeting governance. In the most practical sense, abolish the Friday agenda study, which serves as a way to insulate government from scrutiny by encouraging the most substantive discussions to occur away from the easiest public access. Do the public’s business in public. Doing it in private has brought none of the benefits our wise men and women like to claim. Commissioners can change this right now by refusing to take part in the Friday agenda study and by refusing to take part in private one-on-one meeting with powerful folks. When Keith Merritt did that during the Lakeland Electric sale saga, it changed the whole dynamic of that issue for the better. And it was good politics. Commissioners should pay attention.

3) Abolish — or at least completely overhaul — Leadership Lakeland. Admittedly, this isn’t terribly important as anything but a symbol. But symbols matter. I mock Leadership Lakeland pretty relentlessly. But in all seriousness, isn’t it time to just shut that whole thing down? Yes, I’m aware it’s just a money maker for the Chamber, but I want to take it at face value. And if its mission is to encourage “servant leadership” among the city’s luminaries, it’s at best a miserable failure. At worst, its clubbiness and classism feed what’s wrong here. Indeed, I know an LL alum (not my wife) who was told to be quiet a few years back when raising LPD issues on city government day. I submit that one can draw a direct line from the ethic of “leadership” that Leadership Lakeland encourages to what you’re seeing here in the real world.

4) Establish a meaningful citizen oversight board, with responsibility not just for monitoring police complaints but helping oversee LPD relationships with other stakeholders. Indeed, the board should include seats for representatives from the sheriff’s office, state attorney, public defender, and educational institutions with police academies.

None of these recommendations — or any others — will happen unless commissioners or citizens ask for them directly, confrontationally, publicly. There are no lurking saviors.

Paula Dockery is not riding in a white horse to rescue the city and run for mayor. No politician has so nobly butted her head for so long against the pathologies of this city’s power structures as Paula with far too little support from people who knew better and should have helped. She’s earned a rest.

So this is up to us. At the very least, we have to make leadership change a part of this extraordinarily dreary mayor’s election. Push one candidate or the other to commit to pushing for dismissal of top leadership. This has to be a referendum on the flesh and blood leadership of the city. The sooner we make it that, the sooner pieces will start to move.

Let’s not look at this crisis and shrug. Let’s seize the moment and change how the city operates for the better and for years to come.

2 thoughts on “The Big 3 Must Go; and Other Thoughts on Rescuing Lakeland from Itself

  1. The sexual activities are tittilating but sound more symptomatic than diagnostic. It’s obvious the leadership isn’t there to protect the integrity of the City. They are there for some reason. They should probably follow the money. Always follow the money.

  2. You are right on. Being transparent is never a problem.
    Getting people to do their job in an ethical way is always good.
    I understand that the Chief stays “upstairs” and doesn’t mix with the troops.
    I have an extra copy of the 1 min. manager if she wants it.

    In order for Lakeland to get ahead we need management that is not always seeking a safe way to do everything.

    Thanks for the article.

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