Lakeland city hall fire debate: Keep offering an arson reward when conviction is unlikely?

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It’s been more than seven years since an apparent arson fire destroyed the city hall building under construction in Lakeland. The state statute of limitations for the crime ran out more than two years ago.

Is it time for the Lakeland City Council to stop offering a reward for information on those responsible for the fire and to remove a sign seeking information?

Lakeland City Council member Doug Sand thinks so. At a Jan. 16 meeting, the council considered a resolution re-establishing a $7,000 reward “for information leading to the arrest and conviction on the arson of the newly constructed city hall.”

Sand voted against it.

“It’s been over seven years since the possible arson occurred,” Sand said. “It’s meaningless. There will never be any conviction on this. It’s just a negative thing. It’s time to move on. Beyond that, I think we should take down that arson sign in front of the water department. It just bothers me. It serves no purpose other than just negative.”

The resolution passed by a 3-2 vote; Mayor Joe Paiement, an attorney, was the other “no” vote.

“The reward is predicated on getting a conviction,” Paiement said. “Well, if we can’t get a conviction, there is no real point in having a reward.”

Federal charges?

The federal statute of limitations for arson is 10 years, so that possibility has not run out. But Paiement said the case’s odds of being investigated and prosecuted federally are “very, very unlikely.”

Sand said federal provisions would not apply in the Lakeland case. “This was a garden-variety arson – if it was an arson,” he said. “That’s a huge stretch. There is no federal case here.”

Council member Mike Thron, however, argued that the reward and sign should remain in place. “People should be aware of it. People should know what happened,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a negative; I think it’s awareness. I also think the sign should stay there so people realize that this went on in our city. We may never find out who did it, but I think  it deserves to be there.”

A sign requesting information about a fire set at the city hall building under construction in Lakeland in 2016 remains outside the city’s water department building on Jan. 24, 2024. (Courtesy of City of Lakeland)

The arson occurred on Nov. 13, 2016, just five days after then-Mayor Amy Williams, who supported building a new Lakeland City Hall, was defeated by then-council member Richard Glasgow, who opposed it.

Construction of the building was at the center of their contentious mayoral race, which Glasgow won, 61 percent to 38 percent. The fire was immediately deemed suspicious; no one has been charged in connection with the crime.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office followed up on several leads over the years, but nothing led to any substantiated information, said Laura Perkins, a spokeswoman for the department. The last tip received in connection with the crime was in 2017, she said.

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