The recent city elections in Lakeland appear to demonstrate the principle that if people are embarrassed or disgusted about something in their community, the guy at the top will get the ax, even if he’s not to blame.
In the wake of an appalling string of scandals at the Lakeland Police Department this year – some having to do with sexual misbehavior and some having to do with just poor discipline – incumbent Mayor Gow Fields was defeated by City Commissioner Howard Wiggs on Nov. 4. Fields had supported LPD Chief Lisa Womack and her boss, City Manager Doug Thomas. Wiggs wants them both fired and made it a campaign issue.
Fields tried to make the case that Thomas and Womack were doing a good job of getting the situation under control. Womack has a certain amount of public sympathy since she has only been chief for three years and the department had been badly managed for at least a decade before she showed up. But the scandals have been quite tawdry, and Fields got none of whatever sympathy clings to Womack.
On the face of it, you would think Thomas’ and Womack’s days are numbered once Wiggs takes office in January, but the situation is complicated. For one thing, Wiggs would need at least three more votes among the seven-member City Commission to carry out his campaign promise. All he’s got at this point is support from one commissioner to fire Womack. One candidate in a runoff for an open seat favors firing Thomas.
There are indications that the worst of the scandals may be over, so Womack and especially Thomas – who has established himself as a savvy and able bureaucrat – may have lived to fight another day. But if just one more scandal hits the pages of the local paper, you can bet that both will be shown the door.
Thomas’ hold on his job is mainly due to the fact he has made himself indispensable. He has his hands on all the levers of city agencies and has, with one or two exceptions, pushed them at the right time. Good city managers are not easy to come by, and the commissioners are reluctant to cut him loose, even in the face of a badly run police department, something Thomas surely knew about.
As for Womack, it’s clear that she is no Jane Castor, the no-nonsense chief of the Tampa Police Department. Word among cops I know is that the rank and file of the Tampa PD love Castor for her natural leadership. Womack has not inspired the same confidence in the approach she has taken to get her department under control. Maybe she will get there eventually, but time is not on her side.
Fields ran a puzzlingly dispirited campaign yet still garnered 48 percent of the vote. In spite of being on the wrong side of the LPD controversy, he might have retained his post with a more vigorous campaign that pointed to his record, which has been otherwise respectable. Perhaps he was burned out.
It’s also a bit of a puzzle why Wiggs wanted the mayor’s post. He’s 66, unlikely to run for higher office, and due to term limits from previous service on the City Commission, he will have just one four-year term as mayor, not much time to get things done. Perhaps he and his supporters felt the situation at LPD presented a crisis that needed immediate attention, but as mentioned, he can’t get anywhere without support on the commission that is not yet forthcoming.
In short, although voters have called for change at the top in Lakeland, it feels a lot like things haven’t changed much.