Impressions of Lakeland city commission candidates

Submitted by Darren Oh on

I had the privilege of meeting the Lakeland mayoral and city commission candidates on September 29 at an event hosted by the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce. I want to thank the Chamber of Commerce for organizing this event and the candidates for being willing to speak directly to individual voters like me. Ordinary citizens like me seemed to be a minority of those in attendance. For those who were not able to attend, here is a run-down of my impressions. With one exception, I think all the candidates would serve Lakeland well.

The first candidate I met Saga Stevin, who is running for mayor. I asked how she would address homelessness if she became mayor. I understand that many business owners in Lakeland are concerned that seeing homeless residents scares away customers. Saga seems to genuinely care about the impact of homelessness on both individuals and local businesses, and she wants to implement programs that have been successful in places like San Diego. She believes that having daytime programs for homeless residents will lessen the negative impact of homelessness on local businesses. She also thinks other cities are contributing to homelessness in Lakeland by giving their homeless residents one-way bus tickets to Lakeland. I asked her how she knew that, and she said she heard it from some police officers. Saga thinks she can reduce homelessness in Lakeland by sending homeless people back to the cities they came from. I presume that would involve giving homeless people in Lakeland one-way trips to other cities. Saga seemed to be accusing others of something she plans to do herself.

In her speech, Saga said Lakeland has a target on its back and that “they” want to take Lakeland because “they” think if “they” can take Lakeland “they” can take Polk County and if “they” take Polk County “they” think “they” can take Florida. As an example, she said our local Black Lives Matter organization had been made a stakeholder in Lakeland. Shandale Terrell spoke after her and said what actually happened was that one of our local Black Lives Matter leaders spoke at a citizens meeting and was assured that our black citizens would have the same voice as everyone else.

I obviously had to find out who “they” were, so I asked Saga for clarification after the speeches. She told me there are three Marxist organizations in Lakeland and named two: Black Lives Matter and the Polk County Democratic Socialists. When I asked what they had done, she claimed our local Black Lives Matter leaders had invited violent protesters from out of town to make trouble in Lakeland. I let her know I had followed our local Black Lives Matter Facebook page last summer, and they were telling anyone who wanted to make trouble to stay out of Lakeland. Saga responded that some of our local Black Lives Matter members had traveled to Minneapolis last summer and been arrested. I asked how she could be sure of this, and she said she heard it from some police officers.

The police officers I know have personal opinions like everyone else and are perfectly willing to share them. Hearing something from a police officer doesn’t mean no further investigation is required. I pointed out that the people she accused of planning a Marxist takeover were not outside groups but fellow citizens like us. Saga answered that she believes in equal opportunity for all.

I have no doubt that Saga wants to do good for all the citizens of Lakeland. But she cannot successfully represent all the people of Lakeland while she is under the influence of people who see fellow citizens as part of an enemy force. The tactics of turning citizens against each other and accusing others of things to justify doing them yourself are familiar from national politics. I hope we will reject these tactics in Lakeland.

I next spoke to Allyson Lewis, who is running to be city commissioner for district C. Allyson attended Harrison School for the Arts and wants to support arts in Lakeland. She believes that arts and volunteer efforts of seniors and youth can make Lakeland a better place to live. I asked Allyson if she thought people weren’t already volunteering, and how her being a commissioner would change that. Allyson agreed that people are already volunteering, but thinks they could be more effective with an advocate on the city commission. Allyson is also concerned about the city bringing in developers to replace affordable housing with more expensive housing. As someone with friends who cannot afford to buy a house to accommodate their growing family, I share her concern.

Allyson is running against Sara Roberts McCarly, the current commissioner for district C. Sara works for a local charitable organization and is very active in the community. She comes across as mature and competent. Sara and Allyson both struck me as good candidates. I’m sure whichever one we choose as commissioner, both will continue to serve the community as volunteers.

After Allyson I spoke to Mike Musick, the current commissioner for district D. Mike was elected to the city commission in a special election a few months ago. He said it takes a lot more time than he expected, but he has great people at his company who give him all the time he needs to do the job. I asked Mike what being on the city commission enables him to do, and he said it gives him one seventh of a vote. The main power it gives him is the opportunity to try to persuade other commissioners. When Mike gave his speech, he said his main concern is to question spending, and that he goes with his gut. I know our city employees work very hard to minimize spending, so judging spending by gut feeling doesn’t strike me as fair to them.

Mike’s opponent in district D is Dr. Shandale Terrell. Dr. Terrell teaches high school. Like Mike, he describes himself as conservative with spending. Dr. Terrell seems to have done everything possible to prepare for service in Lakeland. He has joined community organizations, served in multiple volunteer roles, and taken whatever training was available. His approach seems to be, why guess when you can know?

Our current mayor, Bill Mutz, accepts that being mayor doesn’t come with much formal power. But it does give him the opportunity to get information and talk to people, and sometimes that’s enough to make a difference. I’d heard him speak before, so at this event I asked him about the obstacles to affordable housing in Lakeland. He shared how below-market rate housing is being developed and told me who to talk to if I had ideas to make more affordable housing available.