Editor's note: Part 2 of a five-part series.
LAKELAND — Four candidates with distinct backgrounds and styles seek the Southwest District commission seat being vacated by Don Selvage, who declined to run for a third term on the board.
Michael Dunn, 46, is the owner of Vet's Surplus, a North Lakeland business. Dunn, who is making his third attempt at the City Commission, has argued against what he describes as overly fastidious regulation on business and economically harmful fees on new development.
Larry Durrence, 78, again seeks office in Lakeland after serving on the City Commission in the 1980s. Since then, he has been the president of Polk State College, and after his retirement there acted as a fix-it administrator at colleges throughout the country. He touts his experience turning around financially shaky schools and his involvement in local and state-level government.
Jorge Fonseca, 45, is the chief administrator of the Romero Medical Plaza, a growing practice with two locations in Polk County and a third in the works. Fonseca has made education the center of his campaign, saying Lakeland can only become more prosperous if the city makes a role for itself in public education in the city.
Pablo Sologaistoa, 28, a relative newcomer to Lakeland's civic arena, says he will be a consensus-building commissioner. He has declined to "make any promises" in his campaign but instead said he will be a conduit between Lakeland's unheard residents and the commission with the goal of helping residents achieve their dreams.
Election Day is Nov. 7.
Here's a look at the candidates' answers to a series of questions sent by The Ledger via questionnaire.
How would you conduct the city's business differently?
Dunn: I would push for at least one nighttime meeting per month, giving the general public a more convenient option for attendance. Additionally, I would like to require that there is a commissioner in attendance at every neighborhood-association meeting across the city and report any findings to the rest of the board. I will be the type of commissioner who interacts and responds to constituents' issues.
Durrence: I would request public input BEFORE initiating the process of revising and updating major policies/codes (land development, permitting, zoning and building, etc.), and use that input to help shape the revisions by staff or consultants. I would increase budget oversight and stewardship by having a "Living Budget" provided to commissioners regularly. That compares current expenditures with the expenditures in the previous year and to the current year’s budget. Ensure that all staff understand and are committed to quality customer service and to continuous improvement to increase efficiency. Finally, I want all critical services benchmarked against the top-performing cities of comparable size.
Fonseca: By placing our residents' interests ahead of any special groups. The lack of leadership from our current city commissioners has created a bureaucracy that delays projects and investments, creating a disconnect with the people they supposedly serve. City employees need the guidance and leadership of individuals who place the community first. Electing leaders, motivators and decision-makers will give this city the direction and unity it needs.
Sologaistoa: I place a lot of emphasis on having a good strategic plan because "without a vision, the people perish." In other words, if we don't know who we are as a city and what our future plans are, we are going to continue being ineffective in our execution. I think we need to focus on recreating our strategic plan. This strategic plan must address the different challenges that we currently face. This strategic plan must be built with community input from various organizations within the city. Once redone, we focus on execution. We must set and achieve deadlines and goals on a regular basis. As a city commissioner, I plan to continue to raise our level of excellence. A seasoned business owner once told me we will only go as high as the ceiling that we set. We need to set the bar high and continue to build.
How should the city manage population growth? Are there any areas of the city not receiving their due attention to prepare?
Dunn: Consider altering the time frames of our comprehensive plan. Push for redevelopment within our city's core, waiving impact fees and other incentives to reach this goal if necessary. Northwest Lakeland is in my opinion the area that is most in need of preparation for growth.
Durrence: The city encourages increased urban density by policies that reduce the costs of providing infrastructure such as water, sewer, roads, electricity, policing and fire protection. Growth will require enhancements to that infrastructure, but that costs less than urban sprawl. The city already seeks to do that but some policies regulating construction design and perceived problems with permitting and building codes discourage a few builders and developers from building in the city. On the commercial-development side, the city should use its influence and incentives to attract and grow businesses that raise the median household income. Also, the city must upgrade the aging water-distribution system to reduce leaks and water line breaks because SWFWMD (Southwest Florida Water Management District) may halt growth once we reach our water-allocation limit.
Community Redevelopment Agencies are working on the urban core, but some residential neighborhoods, especially in West and East Lakeland, need more attention and assistance, beginning with planning, technical assistance and seed money to revitalize them. The city should partner with neighborhood residents and community-improvement groups to enhance the quality of life in those areas. As the city views its western and eastern borders, we should consult with Polk County to discuss strategies to improve these adjacent unincorporated areas.
Fonseca: Smart growth is more than enhancing our current services; we must provide a better quality of life for those who live and work here. I believe in the value of effective planning and the inclusion of all residents working toward a common goal. As a commissioner, I would not target a sector or area of the city, but encompass the city as a whole. Current commissioners are concentrating on downtown projects and forget their job is to manage the entire city. Lakeland's north side has been neglected for years. My plan is to spur development and investment across all of Lakeland, not just specific areas. We need to attract small businesses and diversify our skilled workers, focusing on specific industries. We must adopt a smart model of growth and improve the quality of our education while at the same time we improve our residents’ equality of life.
Sologaistoa: As a city, one of the core values should be proper stewardship of our city's resources (specifically land use) and growth. In my opinion, I think we can be more effective if our growth is focused from the inside, out. We should focus on utilizing and maximizing the most of the inner core (downtown area) and build from there. That means we should plan for building with the appropriate density and intensity to support local businesses, as well as plan for support for proper transit use. The Northwest District without a doubt [has not been receiving its due attention –ed.], specifically the Kathleen and Martin Luther King Jr. area. In addition, we definitely need to turn our eyes to improving the Combee area as well.
What should the city do to alleviate problems with South Florida Avenue, Dixieland to downtown?
Dunn: We need to come to the realization that the Dixieland road problem is just part of a larger Lakeland road problem. I think we need a realignment of George Jenkins Boulevard, MLK and Sikes Boulevard to alleviate some traffic off Florida Avenue. The underpass at Sloan Avenue and the railroad tracks should be widened as well.
Durrence: The Florida Department of Transportation tracked 174 traffic crashes with 132 injuries and one death over a four-year period. Businesses suffer because narrow sidewalks are dangerous for pedestrians. But I worry about the potential negative impact on existing businesses and residential neighborhoods if traffic diverts from Florida Avenue through the neighborhoods. Therefore, I support the commission’s decision to allow FDOT to have a one-year test. The test should reveal negative impacts but not the road diet’s potential stimulation of commercial development because no sidewalk improvements will be made during the test and businesses will not invest during a temporary test.
Fonseca: I support the road-diet proposal. The negative impact was created when changes were made years ago by a group of individuals who placed their own interests ahead of our community. Businesses around Dixieland are struggling to survive as a result of those decisions. The safety and wellness of our residents must be our priority. We must work together to rebuild Dixieland and to provide our residents with a safe place to walk, shop and enjoy with their families, just as they are able to in other parts of the city.
Sologaistoa: I am very much in favor of the proposed South Florida Avenue road diet. At the very minimum, I support the proposed year-long test. I got the opportunity to go to Orlando and study the effects their road diet had on one of their main streets. The result? It spurred $600 million in developments, reduced car accidents by over 40 percent, drive through traffic in surrounding communities stayed the same and increased traffic wait times were limited to 54 seconds during rush hour times. I think a 54-second traffic-wait increase during rush hour times is a good tradeoff for safer streets alone.
How was Lakeland Electric's response to Hurricane Irma? What would you change?
Dunn: I think Lakeland Electric had an excellent response to Hurricane Irma. I would look at ways to harden our existing power lines and moving some of our aerial lines underground.
Durrence: Lakeland’s utility personnel did a tremendous job. Line crews worked 16-hour shifts every day without a break for more than a week. When I talked to one crew on dinner break, I was amazed at their positive commitment after eight days of 16-hour shifts. The one area where Lakeland Electric can improve is with the online reporting system that tracked the progress of the power-restoration crews. It cannot be perfect in telling customers exactly when electricity will be restored, but it can be better. After clean-up is complete, an evaluation of the distribution system should be done to reduce future outages.
Fonseca: I am proud of the response from our city and Lakeland Electric employees before, during and after the storm. We have very capable and hard-working people who put residents ahead of their safety and answered the call like true professionals. We must protect Lakeland Electric and elect individuals who understand what it takes to run a utility company in order to keep our lights on.
Sologaistoa: I’ve lived in Florida all my life and lived through several hurricanes in four different cities, and I am very proud to say that I was blown away (pun intended) by Tony Delgado and Joel Ivy’s response to this catastrophe. I have mad respect for our electric linemen and for every person that volunteered and sacrificed their time to get us back on track.
I think for me, we could have definitely improved our pre-hurricane communication and direction. After the hurricane, a lot of people were frustrated because they didn't know where to get information or they felt like they were being ignored. I think communicating and directing citizens where to go before the hurricane would have definitely eased any concerns. Other than that, I think our emergency response team did great!
If the strong-mayor amendment passes, how do you intend to maintain the commission's oversight role? How will you vote on the amendment?
Dunn: I am not in favor of the strong-mayor amendment. However if it passes, I believe much of the interaction would be similar to what you would have with a city manager. I would think that at times a commissioner would have to be a better bargainer or negotiator. If a mayor is not doing a good job, I think the commission should spearhead the effort for said mayor’s removal. I would imagine the commission as a body would require the mayor to work with the commission to conduct the people’s business, budgetary and financial or otherwise. In matters of wrongdoing by the mayor, I would think the commission could initiate an investigation of the mayor, and I would also think the State Attorney’s Office and the court system would be there for the people of Lakeland.
Durrence: The charter amendment seeks to make the commission an advisory body by giving 80 percent or more of the power to one person who can make policy behind closed doors without consulting the commission or voters. I would use every ounce of power left in the commission to help control spending and abuse of power.
I will vote “no” and help keep open government accountable to the people every day.
Fonseca: I believe in teamwork and compromise for the good of our residents. If the amendment should pass, commissioners must be willing to work alongside the mayor as the voice of the residents. I will likely vote against the amendment, but I encourage everyone to learn more about both forms of government in order to vote for the one that represents their values.
Sologaistoa: In my opinion, the most concerning part of the proposed charter amendment is the lack of balance. If we’re going to change our charter, we must get it right the first time. I don’t think it will pass. However, if it does pass, I would seek an amendment to be presented that removes the line item veto power from the mayor. The line item veto has the propensity to silence the voice of those who have no voice (minorities) so it would be expedient for an amendment like this to pass. In addition, this amendment would give all budgetary power to the commission.
I will vote against it.