The 6,500-vote strong mayor: How to empower unions, wealthy heirs, and self-important writers

I empathize with the people pursuing a strong mayor government structure. I really do. I’m not sure anyone in this town so relentlessly articulated his or her frustration with organizational stagnancy in Lakeland city government as I did through 2013 and 2014.

I believe this passage appeared in this space just more than a year ago.

So investigate whatever you want at however much cost. Doug’s not going to jail. And our city government’s not coming back to life with him at its head. It is dead. Dead.

Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.

We’re just fighting pointlessly over the color of the tie on the corpse.

That’s gotta give me some street cred, right?

Of course, I’ve since become corrupt, with my lovely wife running the LDDA. So you know the drill as you read. Grains. Salt. Etc.

But this Lakeland strong mayor push is a classic example of putting one’s gut where one’s mind ought to be. We do this far, far, far too much in America. See War, Drug.

So let’s walk through how this emotionally satisfying idea becomes a disaster in execution.
But first, let’s call this by the correct name: elected city manager.

The people sponsoring the petition drive, I submit, they want the current city manager’s leadership on the ballot. They do not feel that the seven-member commission has behaved like his boss. It’s hard to disagree. The commission has basically declared that a Lakeland city manager is Too Big to Fail. That’s an error. But it’s a compounding error for the rest of us to create something bigger.

6,500 votes wins you a $150,000+ pay day

Here’s the most salient point in this entire discussion: The 2013 mayor’s race, which became a bitterly contested, high-profile referendum on LPD and city administration, produced a total of about 13,000 votes. Unless we move the election to coincide with a presidential race, you can become a strong mayor/elected city manager with 6,500 votes in a general election. And you can win with many fewer in a run-off, which you will almost certainly have in every cycle.

If this was a 100,000-vote election, I might well feel differently.

But at our level, you have to think it through: You mean I can win a $150,000+ gig and control all the spoils of Lakeland government and punish all those employees who didn’t do what I wanted over the years? Just with 6,500 votes? Sign. Me. Up. You’ll have seven or eight people running every year. People getting 1,500 votes can get into run-offs, which are notoriously low turnout elections. I cannot imagine a greater recipe for spiteful instability. Chronic instability is as paralyzing as motionless inertia.

And consider this: Counting Lakeland Electric, city government employees about 2,600 people. All of them have families and friends. How much influence will that voting bloc exert in an election where 6,500 is the magic number and the result directly affects their job security and pay raises?

Lakeland is the perfect size to make strong mayor a money conservative’s nightmare. It’s big enough to have lots of public spoils at stake and small enough for tightly organized interests — otherwise known as unions and their constituents — to control those spoils.

The Tudor form of city government

This is all quite ironic. In my little liberalish world, I hear people whisper about sinister developers and Publix heirs wanting to buy city government through this strong city mayor plan. I hardly know Gregory Fancelli, although he was in my house for the Lake Morton Home Tour on Saturday. He seems like a nice fellow; and I think it’s cool he’s looking to invest time and money here. I don’t feel qualified to assess his motivation to make strong mayor happen. I hope to talk to him about it.

But many people who will vote in a strong mayor’s election in Lakeland will note that Publix’s loose change has, in just the last couple years: tried to sell Lakeland Electric; led the fight to demolish public transit in Polk County; kept medical use of marijuana a crime; and moved a beloved old house and leave it sitting idly on the corner of a busy thoroughfare. That’s on top of Publix continuing to bank record profits and snub farmworkers.

The Lakeland city government electorate is significantly more “liberal” than any other major electorate in this county. And I can understand why people paying attention — who tend to be supervoters — might fear that the strong mayor petitioners see Lakeland government as the political equivalent of the Tudor. We took control and moved it. Kind of on a whim. Now what?

How unions will deliver us the Troller administration

But even if that perception of Fancelli and crew’s motivations is correct — I have no way of knowing if it is — I think they and their opponents alike have miscalculated the raw coalition and interest politics.

In a 13,000-vote election, in a narrowly contained geographic area, money counts for much less than organized interests. I predict that public sector unions and city employees will benefit more than anyone else from a strong mayor system. And anyone who lived through the Lakeland police scandal and thinks strong mayor is a logical reform needs to ask themselves this: did those city employees have too much or too little power?

Justin Troller knows this. He’s the shrewdest and most ambitious politician on the commission. I do not find it at all surprising that a public school teacher known for his populism and support from city government unions badly wants strong mayor on the ballot — and soon. I would not bet against a Troller administration in a strong mayor system.

And on top of paying Justin Troller $150k or so per year, you can expect him to appoint a city administrator/chief-of-staff with organizational expertise to actually run the organization on a day-to-day basis. So expect a significant increase in the overall cost of running the city.

An endless battle for considerable and attainable spoils

Put aside, for a moment, the politics of who gets to be the strong mayor.

Imagine how a strong mayor administration might play out from the point-of-view of city government department heads, managers, and line workers.

If you give a strong mayor, elected with 6,500 votes, the power to fire anybody at any time, you’ve just destroyed the ability of anyone to perform their jobs with objective attention to the public interest.

Case-in-point: Joe Developer wants his or her project approved. Joe Developer is a friend and contributor to the strong mayor. The strong mayor orders his or her planning director to recommend approval. If you expect the planning director to fall on his or her sword, you know very little about life. And if he or she does bravely resist and gets fired, who is the replacement? How can you recruit any professionals to work in a place with no buffer at all between the unstable politics of a 13,000-vote electorate and the complexities of public policy?

For that matter, answer these questions:

— What incentive does any city official have to work in the public interest when the only interest that matters to a public employee’s life and advancement is the strong mayor’s?

— Do you expect a strong mayor, who needs 6,500 votes to keep making $150k and exercising power, to ever back an employee’s decision over a complaint from a voter? Ever?

— How can you have meaningful employee evaluation measures when the employees themselves provide the core base of support for the strong mayor?

On the ground, the personal “accountability” that a strong mayor brings will set off a massive and unending organizational scramble for spoils — in the form of jobs, policy preferences, rubber stamped inspections (or the opposite), etc.

Civil service protection creates a dictatorship of department heads

There’s an alternative to self-interested anarchy. Give a certain layer of city government civil service protection to insulate them. Prevent the strong mayor from firing people. Of course, that completely defeats the purpose of having a strong mayor in the first place — the ability to set and enforce direction.

If department heads and city leaders need not fear the strong mayor, then he or she is just a highly paid weak mayor. They will slow-roll or just ignore whatever the mayor wants that they find objectionable and wait until the next 6,500-vote mayor takes office.

Wild cards and instability

Here’s another scenario: Anti-prohibitionist writer Billy Townsend runs for strong mayor and gets 1,800 votes in a seven-person race. That gets me into a runoff. In that runoff, in which 8,300-people vote, I get 4,200 votes through a combination of charm, good looks, a concentrated leftyish protest vote, and confused old people mismatching their ballots.

Voila. I am your strong mayor. I proceed to go on a 4-year, $150k/year kamikaze run of Fergusonish reforms. Bye bye red light cameras; bye bye SWAT teams that bust down doors on drug raids; bye bye anybody in the organization who cannot see their job from the point-of-view of the public, who cannot adjust to a customer service ethic. Personnel is policy, as they say.

It would be fun while it lasted; but I would get trounced in four years by interest groups within and outside of the city organization. Would my administration be a blip? Or a part of the overall vision of the city? A 6,500-vote strong mayor, in a runoff system, virtually guarantees the occasional nut job like me will get power. It makes long-term strategic planning incredibly difficult because of political, ideological, and organization churn. 6,500-vote strong mayor is a recipe for wildly inconsistent direction.

Culture, not structure, needs to change

I wrote this back in May. I think it still holds up.

The old saw of running government like a business is stupid. Government and business are different animals, with different missions. But it’s vitally true that government should treat the people — the human beings it serves and governs — as paying customers. Because they are. The more I think about this, the more I think it’s the root of all the problems our city government faces. The same culture that let cops laugh at the unsophisticated people reporting Julio Pagan is the same culture that drives many small entrepreneurs crazy. It is the failure of authority to consistently imagine a public issue from the point-of-view of the people its serves, not from the point-of-view of the authority or its friends. And often, it’s the inability of authority to treat the people it serves with simple decency and respect, even when it needs to say “No.” And it often needs to say no. So this should be a mandatory skill.

By no means is every person working for the city hostile or indifferent to the people they serve. But the leadership culture of “authority before service” also punishes those who try to put service before authority. It punishes entrepreneurism amongst its employees. Young talent learns to either shut up and get along or fight brutal bureaucratic wars of attrition that end in burn-out, family-destroying stress, and departure.

Lakeland city government culture today — presided over by aging/old leaders who collect taxpayer rent rather than building and leading — is poison for our next generation of young leaders. We are grinding up our intellectual seed corn. No amount of happy talk, no votes of confidence will change that. Only time and the consistent force of a younger generation of citizens will change the direction of this city. Fortunately — or unfortunately — the vaccuum of city governship leaves openings for people outside of it to impose their wills. That’s the dynamic to watch in the coming months.

The problem, of course, is that culture is an abstract concept. No measure will tell us, “Oh, now we have a customer service culture?” It’s defined by subjective perception.

Structure is concrete. People fill structure and act within the tangible powers and constraints it gives them. A strong mayor structure in Lakeland will kill any sense of organizational culture because that culture will be so subject to the whims of a small electorate.

A strong mayor structure works in a city like Tampa or Orlando because the barrier to entry for candidates is much higher there than it is here. Elected constitutional officers work in the county because of the high barrier to entry of campaigning countywide and the narrow, administrative aspects of the job.

Maybe the best lens for looking at this is the Polk School District. A decade or so ago, voters took away their own right to elect the superintendent of schools. The arguments, at the time, were quality of leader and instability.

Running a city government with 2,600 employees, a police force, and a power plant, is a comparable challenge to running a school district. So ask yourself why you voted to appoint your superintendent of schools, but might consider electing your city manager in the form of a strong mayor. Is your answer, “Cuz I’m mad at city government?” That’s a bad answer. And if you think you’re mad now…

Lakeland is in a remarkably awful spot for a strong mayor structure. Our size and resources would give a strong mayor far too much power far too easily. That reality means the fight for that power would never end because so many people would consider it winnable.

Again, on balance, I think unions and city employees would most often bend power to their will. It would be very hard to elect an anti-union strong mayor in Lakeland. I don’t share most of my conservative friends’ pathological antipathy toward unions. They’re just an amoral tool designed to create and advance the economic interests of their members.

But I don’t want to live under a union dictatorship either, any more than I want to live under a Publix heir’s dictatorship or my own. I don’t trust any of us with the amount of power, so easily attained, that a strong mayor would give us.

3 thoughts on “The 6,500-vote strong mayor: How to empower unions, wealthy heirs, and self-important writers

  1. Billy: Well stated with some compelling points. Thank you. Don

  2. Two weeks ago, I attended the City Commission Agenda Study session where there was a discussion regarding the movement to change the City’s form of governance. After considering the current system and comparing it to our neighbors across Central Florida, I was moved to write a letter to the Lakeland Ledger, which I share with you this morning.

    FYI: The following is the letter that I e-mailed to each of Lakeland’s City Commissioners and City Manager. I did not receive a reply from the member(s) as of today, but did receive a reply from City Manager Doug Thomas earlier this week after if’s publication last week:

    Honorable Commissioners and Lakeland City Management:

    I had the opportunity to attend yesterday’s City Commission Agenda Study Session, during which Commissioner Merritt inquired about the status of a possible election to change the City Charter toward a strong mayor form of government. It was a very interesting discussion, and one which I firmly believe our city is not ready for…yet.

    At this point, Lakeland has not reached the level of Tampa, St. Petersburg, or Orlando. While we are still growing, supposedly faster than many would like, we are still not there yet. Our form of government is one that is run by a group of concerned individuals who truly care for our city, who thought best for it to be run on a day-to-day basis by a professional City Manager (kudos to Doug Thomas and his staff here). I personally do not believe that Lakeland is ready for this type of change…yet. At some point in the future, that may be required, but not now.

    Robert Charles Pickering
    815 North Gilmore, Apartment 101
    Lakeland, Florida 33801

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