Florida Man Takes on Local Government, Wins Through the Power of the Petition

"One man with courage makes a majority."

Three years ago, Ed Bowlin noticed something about the City Commission in Lake Wales, Florida. Lake WalesIt was hard to get rid of them.

“Our city commissioners were on four years,” he told
SamePageNation, referring to the length of the terms they served. “The problem is with that system is, when you have five commissioners, you know, it can take years before you can change out a city commission if you don’t like what they’re doing.”

Bowlin crunched the numbers and realized that if they switched over to two year terms, it would only take two years to replace the entire commission.

“One year you can get rid of two, or keep if you wanted, two commissioners. The next year, you could get rid of three of them,” he explained.

Bowlin said he thought two year terms were better also, considering how often people forgot what some politicians did early in their terms. Shorter terms meant office holders were more accountable.

With the goal of cutting the length of terms in half, Bowlin assembled a team to help him make it law via the initiative petition.

“I assembled four people together who were willing to work it. We had to have seven hundred and sixty-something signatures,” he said. “We went to work and we actually got the signatures in two weeks. So we got it on the ballot and it passed.”

First time out, and they score a win for citizen-power. Nice.

After his initial success with the initiative petition, Bowlin told us he took a few years off to help his wife who was dealing with an illness. Recently, though, he noticed some of the outrageous salaries some city officials were making.

“Some people got like 14 percent raises in three years. Some got 12 percent. It was just for a few people,” Bowlin said. “I said, ‘Well, what I’m gonna do is make a Charter amendment and take it back to what they were making before hand.'”

His amendment sets a salary cap for City Manager at $105,000 and a salary cap for all other employees at $80,000. After that, the City Commission can raise the salary caps with a unanimous vote, but only as much as the consumer price index.

“I felt it was a way to keep the city in check,” he asserted.

Bowlin and his volunteers went out again, got the signatures and the measure is on the ballot. Bowlin also worked on another petition at the same time, to eliminate the fire assessment fee, which he said is as unfair a thing as he’s seen.

There’s a science to gathering signatures in order to do it as quickly as possible, Bowlin said.

“You want to target your areas. You don’t want to waste time,” he said. “When I did the salary cap, I targeted two different types of neighborhood — poor  and working class neighborhoods.

“The poor people, when they found out they had some city employees making $100,000 were irate,” he recalled. “That doesn’t sit too well with them when they can’t even afford to buy groceries and they hear someone is making that much. The middle class neighborhoods are the same way.”

He explained that the wealthy neighborhoods weren’t as irritated by the salary, so it didn’t make sense to walk those neighborhoods. But even when targeting neighborhoods, Bowlin said volunteers were paramount.

“There really is no such thing as an army of one,” he said. “You need a leader but you have to haveSignatures people that help you.”

When he completed his first ballot initiative, Bowlin said he took the city by surprise, but now, he gets a lot of pushback from them.

“I’ve had to fight and scratch, this time especially,” he noted, saying he had volunteers who said they’d be there to walk door-to-door, but when it was time, they didn’t show up. That caused the process to slow.

“When you’re doing ballot initiatives in a small city, you need to jump on them and get them done quickly. If you don’t, the city is going to regroup and come after you.”

Bowlin said before you do anything, though, from writing the petition to gathering volunteers, you have to find out what you can do in your city. After that, move quickly.

While he said it’s hard work, it’s clear to see the truth in a quote often attributed to President Andrew Jackson — “One man with courage makes a majority.”

And often to the consternation of those in power.

Photo Credit: City of Lake Wales, Fl./facebook
Photo Credit: 123rf

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