Cary McMullen: A resolution for Lakeland’s commissioners: find a spine

Florida State Capitol Building

If you like heavyweight bouts, the citizens of Lakeland have been treated to a six-month knockdown match, and it isn’t over yet.

In one corner, we have some city officials — Police Chief Lisa Womack, City Manager Doug Thomas and Mayor Gow Fields. In the other corner is the state attorney for the 10th Judicial District, Jerry Hill.

The Lakeland Police Department has been battered by a series of scandals, coupled with a public campaign by Hill that calls into question the credibility and competence of Womack and Thomas and has put the City Commission on the spot. The latest blow was Dec. 13, when the 2nd District Court of Appeals ordered the release of a grand jury presentment that city leaders had tried to suppress.

Problems at LPD boil down to three areas. First was a sex scandal that involved more than 20 city workers and officers, including three sergeants, a lieutenant and a captain. More than a dozen officers and employees resigned, were fired or disciplined. Hill himself stated that this problem predated Womack and that she appears to have thrown out the bad apples.

The second problem has to do with public information about criminal cases, and this one goes straight to Womack’s door. It was the focus of the grand jury presentment, which was damning.

It essentially portrays Womack as ignorant or nonchalant about the state’s Sunshine laws and far too tolerant of the incompetence of a crony she installed in the public information officer’s position. The grand jury accused Womack of a lack of responsible leadership.

The final problem, the one driving Hill crazy, is a lack of discipline when it comes to arrest procedures.

He cited 26 cases in the past year in which officers bungled the arrest or the paperwork or just didn’t show up in court. He has handed out letters to three officers stating he will no longer accept their testimony in court, essentially rendering them useless as law enforcement officers.

Hill has said bluntly that Womack is not the leader needed to reform a department that had grown far too lax. Responding to a question from City Commissioner Don Selvage, he stated that public safety is suffering as a result of these slipshod practices.

All this has happened on Thomas’ watch. It’s clear he was content for years to let the department run itself without keeping tabs on the chief. Womack was hired to try to get the department’s accreditation back, and she has accomplished that much.

But Thomas’ most egregious offense is not that he refuses to fire Womack. It was talking the city commission into spending about $225,000 in legal fees to fight the public release of the presentment, which was embarrassing to Womack and Thomas.

He convinced commissioners, who were not permitted to read the presentment, that keeping it secret was for the good of the city and the commissioners went along. After reading the presentment, Commissioner Don Selvage publicly rued the decision to fight it.

Which brings us to the city commission. Perhaps the most astonishing part of this whole fiasco is how some commissioners have abdicated their leadership. Fields committed himself early on to Thomas and Womack, and he has never wavered, which justifies the voters’ decision to oust him.

Incoming Mayor Howard Wiggs has been a mostly consistent critic of Thomas and Womack and wants Womack fired. The other commissioners, with the exception of Selvage, should get either Silver Ostrich or Golden Waffle awards.

They have practiced dumbfounding feats of denial in the face of brute facts or simply cannot make up their minds. An incoming commissioner has not tipped his hand where he stands on all this, which does not bode well. Only Selvage has exercised honest and courageous leadership.

To be fair, Thomas has brought financial stability to the city, and the commissioners have to balance that competence against the big, black stain that is the LPD. But Thomas’ manipulation of the commission into spending almost a quarter of a million of taxpayers’ dollars just to avoid personal embarrassment ought to be grounds for dismissal in anybody’s book. It was an outrageous and inexcusable use of public money for personal benefit.

Despite this, it’s unlikely Thomas will be fired. Womack may not be so lucky. Meanwhile, one of the commissioners’ New Year’s resolutions should be to find their backbones.

Guest Author


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