Eye on 2018: City Commission Elections Under Cloud of Controversy
By: Jeffrey Schweers, Democrat senior writer
Published 3:42 p.m. ET Nov. 4, 2017 | Updated 4:17 p.m. ET Nov. 4, 2017
Tallahassee is facing one of its darkest hours.
For the third year in a row, it has the highest crime rate in the state.
A federal grand jury is in its fifth month of a public corruption investigation involving the city's redevelopment agency.
And the city manager has taken a leave pending the outcome of a state ethics investigation into his accepting free football tickets from a lobbyist.
Those controversies are gathering like clouds over the 2018 elections for city commission and mayor.
So far, only five candidates have emerged from the fog to place their names on the ballot, and two of them are incumbents.
Their campaigns will likely be played out while a federal grand jury continues to probe into the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and several key players in the private sector. At any time the grand jury could issue indictments against any of those named in the subpoenas, including a sitting city commissioner.
Since June, the city has been slapped with three subpoenas from the FBI as part of the grand jury investigation. The first two produced 90,000 pages of records, meeting minutes, invoices, contracts, and emails dealing with the CRA and eight prominent business people.
Nobody knows what the FBI is looking at or if charges will even be filed, but there is an overwhelming sense that the city’s reputation has already been damaged.
Voters will likely be looking for candidates that offer concrete solutions to the city’s crime problems, plans for economic development and giving the city’s ethics board broader powers to investigate potential conflicts of interest like outside employment, gift limitations, misuse of office and annual audits of commissioners budgets.
The mayoral and commission seats are non-partisan.
Two-term Commissioner Gil Ziffer has filed to run for mayor instead of a third term as District 5 commissioner. Ziffer, a long-time advertising and public relations professional, said he has an ability to bring together disparate, and sometimes bickering, groups together to work out compromises.
He also said his eight years on the commission, as well as the years he’s put in with the Florida League of Cities, has given him a lot of insight into what makes an effective mayor. Ziffer is currently president of the Florida League of Cities.
One thing he’s learned -- a good mayor is someone who loves being mayor.
Political newcomer Erik David has also filed to run for mayor. Born in 1983, David has lived in the Florida panhandle most of his life. In 2007 he joined the U.S. Army and served in Afghanistan. After leaving the service in 2011, he attended Tallahassee Community College on the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. He is an instructor at Tiger Rocks Martial Arts.
Erik David, candidate for Tallahassee mayor (Photo: Special to the Democrat)
"I decided to run for Mayor because I feel that there are serious issues facing our local community that aren't being adequately addressed: income inequality, climate change, and crime to name a few," he said.
David describes himself as a social Democrat who believes that increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour is one of the city’s more pressing issues. He also supports transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 and would like to see a community-based crime prevention program.
He also is committed to financing his campaign with small donations from individuals, without the support of large corporations and special interest groups.
While Commissioner Scott Maddox initially signaled he would be interested in upgrading to the mayor's seat, he has gone quiet on his intentions since the FBI probe came to light and his emails were subpoenaed by the feds in September.
Bob Lotane originally filed to run for mayor but withdrew when Ziffer announced he was running for that seat. Instead, Lotane will run for the District 5 seat Ziffer is leaving in his bid for mayor.
Lotane, a longtime communications executive who has lived in Tallahassee since 2000, describes himself as something of a policy wonk. The former Hill + Knowlton executive still does for the and spent nine years on the board of the Capital Area Chapter of the Red Cross.
Since filing for office on May 30, Lotane said, “the ground shifted dramatically regarding city issues” dues to the crime epidemic and FBI probe.
Crime and poverty are the top issues he wants to tackle, and believes they are strongly linked to each other.
“I also want to deliver an ethics code with teeth that voters asked for in 2014,” Lotane said.
No one else has filed to run for that seat yet.
Nancy Miller has filed to run for a third term for the City Commission 3 seat she’s held since 2010.
Bill Schack, food services director at the city’s homeless shelter, has filed to run against her, claiming it is time to remove all current commissioners from office “and change our local political landscape.”
He was especially disappointed that the commission didn’t take immediate action to fire City Manager Rick Fernandez over his accepting free tickets to a Florida State University football game from a city lobbyist.
Bill Schack, candidate for city commission seat four (Photo: Special to the Democrat)
“The city commission in unison asked the citizens once again to trust them in light of serious ethics violations,” said Shack, an FSU graduate with 25 years in the hospitality management business. “Difficult decisions left to erode public confidence must be addressed decisively.”
He also said the commission should be more prudent with budgeting citizens’ tax dollars, promote sensible spending and stimulate economic growth.
Article originally posted on the Tallahassee Democrat.