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Hire a city manager, citizens committee advises Kenneth City

KENNETH CITY — If officials here want to save the town money, they need to change the type of government and hire a city manager. That's what a citizens committee has concluded.

Hiring a city manager was No. 1 on a list of 18 suggestions handed to Town Council members last week by Kenneth City's first-ever citizens budget advisory committee.

Mayor Pro Tem Teresa Zemaitis formed the group to scrutinize the town's $2.2 million budget and make recommendations about ways to save money, increase revenues and use available resources more effectively.

The group took its job seriously, delving deep into the operations of Kenneth City government and its 23 employees. Some of the 18 suggestions were simple, such as cross-training employees so they can fill in for absent workers.

Others struck at the heart of Kenneth City government. One of those regarded the town's two-man Public Works Department.

The committee commented: "Look at the service level. … Improvements needed. A lot of work isn't being done. Potholes, trees trimmed, work being outsourced, etc. Need more accountability."

One solution to that, the committee said, was to abolish the department and contract with another city or private company to do the work. But, they said, "the committee recommends against this."

But none of the suggestions was as far-ranging as the recommendation to hire a city manager.

The advantages, the committee said, would be many, including having a qualified person to run the town, greater stability and accountability, a knowledge of available grants, and the removal of politics from Kenneth City government.

Kenneth City is a council-as-manager form of government. That means that the mayor is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the town, and each council member oversees a town department. That works if the elected official happens to already have knowledge of a certain department's activities or how to run a government. But sometimes people who are elected have no clue what to do, which means that the town or department runs them until they are up to speed, if they ever get there.

"It gives some professional guidance to the city. It gives a qualified person to head the departments and guide the departments," former Kenneth City Mayor Harold Paxton said.

Paxton headed up the five-person budget committee.

A city manager "gives somebody who knows what's going on the opportunity to do the work," Paxton said. "My thinking is being elected doesn't qualify you to run a department, police or public works. It qualifies you to set policy."

Zemaitis said the council is open to the idea of changing to a council-manager form of government in which someone trained in municipal government runs the day-to-day operations of the town and the council sets policy. Council members under this form of government are barred from interfering in daily operations.

The change would require a vote of the people, but Zemaitis said she doesn't think the item will be on the March ballot. Studying the idea will likely take longer than that, she said.

The idea of changing to a council-manager form of government has been floated before, and in the mid 1990s, a grand jury advised the town to hire a city manager. But the idea has never taken root.

"I think that people don't want to give up the power or authority they have, is the main thing. They think they won't have anything to do, so to speak," Paxton said. "I think it's just that people don't want to give up that hold … control, I guess you could say, over the departments."

But perhaps the time has come.

"I know that people have wanted change around here for a long time," Zemaitis said. "I do see the benefits of it. My job would be to get even more information and see what the possible negative aspects would be."

Council members will be discussing that issue, as well as others on the list, at upcoming workshops, she said.

Hire a city manager, citizens committee advises Kenneth City 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 4:30am]
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