LAKELAND, Fla. -- The city of Lakeland will hold a special election on January 15 to fill the seat left behind by former commissioner Michael Dunn, who was indicted on a second-degree murder charge after a fatal shooting at a store he managed.

  • 3 candidates are running for Lakeland City Commission
  • Seat left vacant by former commissioner Michael Dunn
  • Special election to be held on January 15

Bill Watts, Patrick Shawn Jones and Sara Roberts McCarley have all qualified to run.

Watts said he wanted to run because he's an "everyday guy."

"I've owned small businesses," Watts said. "I live in Dixieland historic district and I think that people working a 9 to 5 job, or just residents or those who have small businesses, I'm not sure they're properly represented on our commission."

Watts, 53, has been married to Sheryl for 28 years, and they have two grown children, daughter Marley who is 23 and son Kyle who is 20. The University of Central Florida graduate has sold cars and worked as an IT specialist in the past. He said he also owned a gourmet wine and meat store for five years and then opened a southern French restaurant called the Antiquarian for three years until the economy tanked in 2009. He recently started working for Fintech Mortgage in its market outreach division in its downtown Lakeland office. Watts said the company is very supportive of his run for commissioner. 

Sara Roberts McCarley, 47, said she loves Lakeland and felt it was time to give back. The stay-at-home mom is a Florida Southern College graduate who was the executive director of Polk Vision from 2012-2016. She also created the Randy Roberts Foundation in honor of her late husband who died unexpectedly from a heart aneurysm. The foundation takes high school seniors on a trip to Washington, D.C. to learn about the inner workings of government. 

"I want to create a future where if our kids go away to school or the military they can come home and be successful," Roberts McCarley said. 

She said attracting and keeping young professionals in Lakeland is her main priority and keeping a lean budget is her second priority. 

"I don't know that I know off the top of my head right now what we would cut. I do think we need to take a fine tooth comb to the budget and see if there is any excess," Roberts McCarley said. 

She married Trey McCarley two years ago. She has two children, Charlotte 16, and Samuel, 12 and she serves in their schools parent teacher groups. 

Her father was the late Peter Rust, who was the mayor of Davenport in the late 90s. 

Patrick Shawn Jones is not happy about the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce's political action committee endorsing Sara Roberts McCarley before qualifying ended. 

"I don't believe the citizens of Lakeland deserve PAC candidates that won't speak for their interests," Jones said, explaining why he was running. "The people, the voters are looking for a trusted servant. That's the most important thing nowadays. They want somebody they can talk to. They can communicate. That has their interest in mind and not just special PAC driven candidates that only have special interest in mind." 

As for budget cuts, Jones said the city should stop cutting the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce's lawn for free. 

Jones, 53, is a surgical technician at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center. He's also a heavy metal DJ for WMNF Tampa 88.5. He's an ambassador for Equality Florida. He's been married to his husband Jonathan since 2015 but he said they'd been together for 20 years. He said he has a Doctorate of Divinity from Quest Ministries, and also has the podcast, "Sandman Lullaby," on the Real Paranormal Activity Network, where he decodes people's dreams, and sleep apnea. 

The candidates had a few suggestions for improvements. 

"We have to change things like our code enforcement. Our permitting procedure. We have to think about strengthening our technology with gigabit Lakeland," Jones said. 

"I think sometimes we don't listen to different groups and we don't listen to different business people and we might make a decision that is in a silo or a chamber by itself," Roberts McCarley said. She advocates for more discussions where both sides can sit at the same table to discuss issues.

"I believe there could be some improvements in permitting and code enforcement," Watts said. 

In November, the city's staff introduced 30 minute permitting for select permits, mostly residential.  

The candidates varied on their opinion of the relocation of the confederate monument. The commission approved on Nov. 19 to use money generated from red light camera violators to fund moving the monument out of the core of downtown and into Veterans Park. 

"I do wish they would've left it but they've moved on. I think it should've been brought to a vote of the citizens of Lakeland and find out their opinion of it," Jones said. 

"I don't have an opinion on that. I think that I am just disappointed that the dialogue wasn't stronger and that they didn't listen to both sides of the community and bringing both sides together for a constructive collaborative dialogue," Roberts McCarley said. 

"Moving the statue was probably the right thing to do," Watts said.

All candidates said they're focused on moving forward from the issue. 

Only people living within the Lakeland city limits can vote in the special election. 

The deadline to register to vote for those who haven't already is December 17.