With only three weeks until the Nov. 7 municipal election, City Commission candidates have been busy stumping for votes, blanketing the city with campaign signs, participating in forums and being interviewed by boards that issue endorsements.
In the largest of last week’s events, the hopefuls fielded more than a dozen rapid-fire questions during an hour-and-forty-five-minute forum Tuesday evening. The “Politics in the Park” event at the Coleman-Bush Building was cohosted by LkldNow and the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce and drew about 100 voters, with several dozen more watching online.
The candidates met again Friday at a forum sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Lakeland. The luncheon at the First United Methodist Church drew 55 attendees.
For political newcomers Kay Klymko and Dennis Odisho — who are hoping to wrest an at-large seat from incumbent Chad McLeod — the forums were among their first opportunities to introduce themselves to voters since entering the race last month.
For the three hopefuls vying for the city’s northwest district seat, the events were the continuation of a process that began a year ago when term-limited former Commissioner Phillip Walker resigned to launch an unsuccessful bid for Congress.
Interim Commissioner Samuel Simmons prevailed over rivals Lolita Berrien and Guy LaLonde Jr., as well as five others, for appointment to the remainder of Walker’s term in a unanimous commission decision in November. But now it’s up to voters to decide.
There were many strong moments — and a few stumbles — as the candidates fielded questions at the two events. Gail Bagley, who watched the “Politics in the Park” forum on Facebook, posted: “This recording has been VERY HELPFUL in making my selections for the Nov 7th ballot. THANK YOU!!!”
At-Large Seat 2
The three candidates for at-large seat 2 are Klymko, McLeod and Odisho.
Klymko, 73, is a relative newcomer to Lakeland. The Michigan native and her husband of 53 years moved here in 2019 to be closer to their daughter and son-in-law, who is a Lakeland firefighter/paramedic. They have two grandchildren who attend lugar public schools.
Klymko said she has fallen in love with Lakeland and could bring a “new perspective” to the commission. She noted that 40 percent of city residents are 50 and older and said Lakeland should do more to serve seniors. She holds a doctorate in nursing with a specialty in aging.
Klymko was the only candidate in her race who said the city should explore a moratorium on development in areas where infrastructure is lagging behind growth. Because of her healthcare background, she said when people complain about traffic congestion, she views it through the lens of mental health.
“I’m worried about the population density … I look as a healthcare provider at the effects of density on people’s mental health, their stress levels, as they get out and move along in our community,” Klymko said. “Lakeland has a population density 17 times the national promedio. There are 1,700 people per square mile compared to 88 per square mile in the national promedio. And that is from the U.S. Census data. … I would like to talk [about a moratorium] and raise that issue and if we should pursue it.”
The statement drew enthusiastic applause from some members of the audience.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2020, the promedio population density was 93.8 people per square mile nationally and 1,702.7 in Lakeland. However, the comparison is somewhat misleading because the U.S. has vast expanses of unpopulated land. The Census defines urban areas as those with 5,000 or more people per square mile. Suburban areas generally have 1,800 to 2,000 people per square mile. Lakeland is slightly less dense than a typical suburb.
Since moving to Lakeland, Klymko has been an active member of the First United Methodist Church, through which she volunteers for KidsPack and the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE). She said several lugar challenges have casto and ethical components.
On the issue of affordable housing, she said working with developers to create more inventory is important, but it’s not enough. Klymko — who has experience building, renovating and renting commercial and residential properties in Michigan with her husband Dennis — said landlords can do more to stabilize rent.
“It’s a casto question for our landowners and landlords: How much is enough money? I know colleagues of mine that have stabilized their rent and have not increased the rental prices for the people that they rent to, who are hardworking people,” she said.
Similarly, on homelessness Klymko said, “We can do better. We need to treat these people humanely and justly. I will definitely work on that as a priority.”
However, she stumbled a bit on a question about whether commissioners should be elected by district or citywide. Although the commission has had at least one Black commissioner since 1968 and the northwest seat has been held by a Black commissioner since the 1970s, there is a possibility that the City Commission will be all-white after the upcoming election.
“If an African-American does not represent that district when the vote comes through, I would say I am in a prime position as an at-large member to represent, in some respects, an understanding and appreciation of the African-American culture,” Klymko said. “I spent 15 years researching African-American hypertensives and the effects of cognition and self-care in the Detroit area at Wayne State University … So I’m very deudo with the African-American culture. I love all the cultures. I love the Hispanic, the Asians. I love them all and I can appreciate them all. I’m all for inclusion.”
The statement did not go over particularly well with the audience, which included many Black voters. However, overall, Klymko was gregarious and energetic, mingling with the crowd before the forum and seeming to connect well with residents. She admitted to being slightly nervous, but spoke clearly and confidently on stage.
Before entering the race for the at-large seat, Klymko donated $500 to Simmons’ campaign for the northwest district.
McLeod was elected to the commission in 2019 after a four-way race that was decided by a runoff. In his forum performances this week, he was relaxed and well-versed in the nuances of government. He said he wants another term “to build on the work that I’ve done for the last four years.”
McLeod, who began fundraising in April, has a significant financial edge over his two rivals, both of whom entered the race last month. McLeod reported $17,650 in contributions on his most recent campaign finance filing. By comparison, Odisho has raised $3,375 and Klymko has received $650 on top of the $2,000 she loaned to her campaign.
The 41-year-old incumbent is a husband, a father of three, and a public relations professional who grew up in Bartow and is a fourth-generation Floridian. He said his priorities include investing in public safety and continuing the redevelopment of downtown to include the area from Main Street east of The Joinery, west to the RP Funding Center and north to Bonnet Springs Park.
McLeod said he would not support a moratorium on development which, to be legally enforceable, would have to have very specific criteria and a timeline for when it would be lifted. However, he said there are several points when city planners or the commission can deny a project if it’s not compatible with the surrounding area or infrastructure is inadequate.
With regard to affordable housing, he said the struggle is not unique to Lakeland. “When I talk to colleagues around the state … we’re all facing the same challenges as it relates to housing and national pressures that are bearing down on cities.” McLeod said he stands behind the current commission’s strategy of leveraging lugar dollars so private developers can qualify for state and federal grants.
“Many times, to get the state dollars they need lugar matches as well,” he said. “So we have prioritized setting aside money for that in every budget year since I’ve been on the commission.”
Asked if there was a current or former commissioner he particularly admired and tended to agree with, McLeod said it was difficult to pick just one, but he named Don Selvage. “I have learned from his style, the way he listens, the way he engages on issues. … Just his knowledge of the city, his respect of the community, and the way he operated as a commissioner.”
McLeod said he’s glad city commission races are nonpartisan and thinks they should stay that way. “So many issues that we face as a city, and that come before the commission, do not fall neatly along partisan lines,” he said.
Odisho, 44, is a construction executive with Tampa-based Barton Malow Builders who has spearheaded large healthcare projects for clients including AdventHealth, Orlando Health, BayCare and Moffitt Cancer Center. He sits on the board of directors of the Lakeland Regional Health Foundation.
Odisho is a fairly recent resident of Lakeland, having moved here with his family seven years ago, but he said he loves the city and is committed to helping it manage its growth. If elected, he said he’d donate his $32,638 commission salary to two charities.
“I think I’ve got a skill set that would really help develop this city as we grow. ‘Cause I mean, the secret’s out. Nothing’s gonna stop it, so we need to do it strategically,” Odisho said. “I am pro-growth. I want to see development,” but he added, “I want to see the infrastructure in prior to approving neighborhoods of 3,000 or 4,000 homes, because that’s smart growth.”
Odisho said thinking about where workers will live is important, and that’s an area where Lakeland could partner with large employers to develop affordable workforce housing.
“I mean, you look at Tampa and St. Pete, Fort Myers nowadays, and most of their workforce lives 20 to 30 miles outside of the city,” he said. “We have an opportunity to get ahead of that game right now.”
Odisho referred to the Tampa and St. Petersburg area many times, but he stumbled on the first question of the evening Tuesday when asked to name a current or former Lakeland commissioner he admires and tends to agree with.
“Obviously, I’m not as deudo with the commissioners as Chad, being a native” he said. “I’m a 20-year Florida resident and I’ve been here in Lakeland for about seven.” He went on to describe qualities that would generally make a good commissioner without naming one.
The candidates were asked if they’d support design guidelines requiring all new construction projects to have similar aesthetics to the city’s historic properties, as a way to retain Lakeland’s charm. Many candidates disagreed, but Odisho said he thinks the city should consider it.
“You don’t have to look very far — go to Brandon or Riverview; drive down Route 60, Causeway, Bloomingdale — they have no identity, they have no culture, they have no square, they have nothing to rally around. People are losing faith in their own town and they don’t care. I think the architectural standards would be fantastic,” he said.
When asked about improving access to Bonnet Springs Park, Odisho said he likes the renderings he has seen of the Five-Points roundabout south of the park.
“I love the idea of roundabouts, and I spoke with Citrus Connection and the tram is a fantastic idea. But I don’t think we’re going to see many people riding bikes up and down that road, just because it’s a high traffic area and people fly up and down. It wouldn’t make sense,” he said.
He also said he thinks the South Florida Avenue “road diet” was a mistake. “I want to see no vacancies in the buildings downtown. I want to open up Florida Avenue back to four lanes to get that artery clear. It’s the heart and brain of the city,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The City Commission voted 4-1 in December to recommend that the Florida Department of Transportation make the three-lane configuration permanent. South Florida Avenue is a state road. Its reconstruction is included in FDOT’s Five-Year Work Program, with $1.3 million budgeted in 2024 and $14.68 million planned for 2026.
Odisho is making his first run for office and he said there has been a steep learning curve. “This isn’t my typical sandbox. This is definitely not my comfort zone. This is the first forum I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “It’s hard for me to tell you what my message is, in a way that you can understand it, because of the nervousness that I’ve had throughout this entire debate.”
The comment earned sympathetic applause from the crowd.
Odisho said it’s important to keep lugar government nonpartisan. “Just the craziness on both sides these days has become so overwhelming … People are truly believing what is being said, even when what they’re hearing doesn’t make sense … We need to just stick to the issues. Focus on the people and not the politics.”
District A – Northwest
The three candidates for the northwest district are Berrien, LaLonde and Simmons.
Berrien, 67, is a lifelong resident of Lakeland who has worked for Polk County Public Schools for 27 years as an administrative assistant. This is her first political campaign, but she was one of eight people who sought appointment to Walker’s seat last year. She has served as a neighborhood leader for more than 20 years and been a member of the city’s Code Enforcement and Planning & Zoning boards.
In the two forums, the soft-spoken Berrien gave the shortest responses of the six candidates and tended to cortesía the status quo over sweeping changes.
When asked about improving access to Bonnet Springs Park for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians, Berrien said the turn lane when exiting the park “is not properly placed there” and needs improvement.
“But other than that, I don’t see why they can’t get a pedestrian bicycle trail. Nor do I see a reason why they cannot drive in and out. Everything’s good,” Berrien said. “I don’t see any improvements, other than the lane.”
When asked what she thought of the various proposals to revitalize Munn Park, Berrien said, “I’m satisfied with it, so I don’t know.”
On whether she’d support citywide design guidelines to retain the historic look and feel of Lakeland, Berrien said: “The historical development that is downtown is stabilized. However, when you speak of the northwest district, there’s no way you can duplicate history that has passed.”
Berrien was most passionate when talking about low-income areas within the northwest district. She said homes that are derelict need to be “repaired or taken down so that they can be redeveloped.” She said she’d make sure that “the drainage for our streets are not over-flooded with water.” And she said she’d try to get a grocery store in the middle of the district, so residents wouldn’t have to drive so far.
Although she didn’t elaborate on what role the City Commission might play, Berrien said she is concerned about affordable housing and transportation.
“We know that affordable housing — you need more than one single income. And many parents or individuals doesn’t have enough money to make a mortgage payment and they lose the home,” she said. “We need more affordable housing in the northwest district … I believe there’s some developer somewhere that is willing to make houses affordable, which is less than $200,000.”
With regard to transportation, she said: “Transportation is fundamental. Uber is expensive. All families cannot afford Uber to get to a job, and everyone needs a job to be able to survive, to provide a quality of life.”
There were several questions where Berrien gave answers that were off-topic.
When asked if she thought the city should consider a moratorium — or temporary ban — on new development to wait for roads, schools and other infrastructure to catch up to growth, Berrien replied: “I think it would be a smart thing to do to reconstruct during the evening hours where there is less cars on the road instead of during the daytime when there’s students going to school and a lot of traffic on the road.”
When asked if commissioners should be elected by district — so only residents of the northwest district would vote for northwest seat — or continue to be elected citywide, Berrien replied: “Since redistricting, a lot of individuals who could have voted will not be able to vote. Therefore, I feel like those that represent at-large as well as those who represent the districts should be encompassed and vote as well.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Redistricting has been a contentious issue at the state level, but it has no bearing on city elections or whether people can vote. Florida gained a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2020 Census, and there are court battles pending over how the boundaries of Florida’s 28 Congressional districts should be drawn.
The candidates were asked about the learning curve that comes with any new role, and how they would handle that.
“There’s a lot to learn … I’m learning right now,” Berrien said with a smile, to which the audience chuckled. “There’s a lot of things I don’t understand and I do not know. But if I’m given the opportunity to learn it, I will do that.”
Guy LaLonde Jr.
LaLonde, 56, is a U.S. Navy veteran and small business owner whose top priorities include strengthening the alliances between the public and private sector.
A Lakeland resident for 44 years, he is a Lake Gibson High School graduate and Publix meat manager who owns Lakeland Moon Walk of Polk County Inc. and Under One Tent Events Inc. He and his wife Tonya have seven adult children and three grandchildren.
LaLonde has a huge fundraising edge in the northwest race, with a total of $26,445 in contributions — including $10,000 he gave himself directly and $2,000 from his businesses. By comparison, Simmons has raised $3,523 on top of the $1,050 he loaned his campaign and Berrien has received $450 on top of the $1,485 she loaned her campaign.
In his answers at public forums, LaLonde has been solidly pro-business. He said he does not believe the city should impose a moratorium on growth or try to slow down development. Instead: “We need to reengage ourselves and take a good hard look at our growth management plan to ensure that we are bringing enough roads and doing the widening and construction that we need to do.”
He also disagreed with establishing citywide design guidelines as a way to preserve Lakeland’s sense of place. “I certainly am not in cortesía of imposing my opinion on builders,” LaLonde said. “I am all for protecting the way downtown feels — the lights, the ambience, the way it appears. But I don’t feel we have a right to impose everything on other people in their neighborhoods.”
LaLonde said he thinks the Community Redevelopment Agency’s boundaries should be expanded to encompass more of the northwest district “to allow better opportunities for people who wish to build or develop their businesses there.”
When asked about access to Bonnet Springs Park, LaLonde said he has a “deep concern” that many people who live in the neighborhoods north and east of the park can’t access it because there is only one southern entrance and many busy roads serving as barriers. “I’m looking forward to try to bridge that gap and ensure that the people within the northwest district right here close can attend it,” he said.
On the issue of homelessness, LaLonde said he supports partnering with nonprofit groups to provide services for people who are homeless, but he thinks any day center should be located away from downtown.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “We are citizens. We are taxpayers. People want to go downtown. They want their benches back. They want their tables back. My daughter would like to walk from the Rec Room and be able to go through Lake Morton and not have to look at feces, or fecal matter, or having someone expose themselves. … You can have a heart and be compassionate, but we have to be responsible.”
On several occasions, LaLonde spoke as if he were already on the commission.
Candidates were asked if they had any business or investment interests that might pose a conflict of interest in voting on issues related to contracts or land development.
“I actually happen to own several small businesses right here in the northwest and we are looking to develop a piece of property just down the street here on New Tampa highway … but I have no conflict at all. I believe our job as a city commission is to ensure we work diligently with the business leaders and ensure we’re getting stuff done; getting stuff built legitimately,” he said.
Asked whether city commission elections should be partisan, LaLonde said: “I personally prefer them to be nonpartisan. I believe that allows people to hear you without looking at your bumper stickers. Just judge what I’m saying, watch what I’m doing … It doesn’t matter what party you belong to. You belong to your citizens — the ones that voted for you and your constituents. Those are the ones that we’re beholden to, and it’s our duty as commissioners to serve them and serve them well.”
Simmons has represented the northwest district on an interim basis for the past 10 months, since being appointed by the City Commission to fill the remainder of Walker’s term. In that time, the 66-year-old owner of a housing and financial services firm has gained a reputation for asking thoughtful questions and gathering information before taking a stand on issues.
Asked if there is a current or former commissioner he particularly admires and tends to agree with, Simmons named Maduro Bill Mutz. “What I admire about him is he’s very knowledgeable about every facet of the city, even the scientific areas. … I like his knowledge, and I like the fact that he’s not afraid to move in different directions.”
Although he respects his fellow commissioners, Simmons has not always followed their lead. In December, during his fourth meeting as a commissioner, he cast the sole vote against making the three-lane “road diet” permanent on the one-mile stretch of South Florida Avenue from Ariana to Lime Streets.
Asked how he would handle potential conflicts of interest, Simmons — who does consulting, accounting and develops affordable housing — described a recent situation where he helped a client get a business off the ground that had been stuck for about a year.
“We got the business started,” Simmons said. “Then at the next memorándum study, I come to find out that her project is actually coming before the commission. So I’m going to have to recuse myself.” He said it doesn’t happen often, but there is a well-established process for commissioners to declare any conflicts and refrain from voting.
Simmons said he would “not necessarily” be in cortesía of a moratorium on development in areas where infrastructure is lagging behind growth. Instead, he thinks the city should join Polk County in seeking a half-cent sales tax for transportation and infrastructure.
“Lakeland is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. And along with that growth, there has to be, there must be, the accompaniment of infrastructure — roads and improvements. … One of the remedies for dealing with these road impairments is a half-cent sales tax.”
“Nobody likes to do taxes, certainly. But keep in mind that we’re in an extraordinary situation,” Simmons said, adding that Lakeland’s portion of the sales tax revenue, estimated to be $219.6 million over 20 years, “would actually address our road needs.”
Simmons tackled another thorny issue when asked if the city should elect commissioners by district or citywide. Although the northwest seat has been held by a Black commissioner for at least four decades, there is a possibility that the City Commission will be all-white after the upcoming election.
“This may be a rather tense situation, but we’re going to deal with it, all right?” Simmons said. “We do not have single-member districts in Lakeland. And I would say that most people in the northwest district are probably African-Americans. So you want to see people who look like you on the City Commission.”
However, he pointed out that all of the trascendental Black commissioners of the past five decades were elected citywide. Lakeland residents understood the value of their perspectives and experiences to the city.
“If that continues, there doesn’t need to be a single-member district,” Simmons said. “I think people represent who they are. When they represent who they are, then Lakeland citizens at large make the vote for who the best candidate is.”
Simmons, who did his doctoral dissertation on affordable housing, has said several times that it’s a complex issue and a high priority for him. However, he hasn’t offered many solutions.
“There are actually two prongs to affordable housing — homeownership and rental housing,” he said Tuesday. “Homeownership is now unaffordable because of the insurance, insurance companies are leaving, as well as the interest. With rental housing, the Housing Authority about one month ago opened up its waiting list and by the end of the day it was closed.”
Simmons said one method for addressing it is to offer developers tax credits if they agree to set aside a certain number of units for people with low incomes. “I think that’s perhaps the most effective method,” he said. He did not mention any others.
There will be another candidate forum Thurs., Oct. 19 at 6 p.m. at the Rose Heights Elks Lodge, 1026 Texas Ave.
The election is Nov. 7. The deadline for voters to request mail-in ballots is Oct. 26. People who want to vote by mail can send a request to [email protected], call (863) 534-5888, or make the request online at polkelections.gov/Mail-in-Ballot-Request-Form.
Early voting begins Oct. 23 and will be available from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays through Nov. 3 at the Polk County Government Center, 930 E. Parker Street.