KENNETH CITY — This town is one of the smallest in Pinellas but it has been the focus of some of the county's biggest scandals and nastiest political squabbles.
Now a volunteer citizens group has suggested changing the town's style of government to put a stop to the political gridlock that often paralyzes it. The charter review commission's unanimous recommendation that the town hire a city manager mirrors one a grand jury made as far back as 1995.
Back then, the Kenneth City Council turned down the advice, voting three months later against holding a referendum to allow taxpayers to decide. The reason: A city manager would cost too much.
Now, five months after the charter review commission's recommendation, the issue is not on the March 12 ballot.
"The big discussion is whether (the town) can afford it," Mayor Teresa Zemaitis said. "Others would counter, can we afford not to?"
It's not a decision that should be rushed, she said. The discussion would best be held by the new council that's expected after the election. While Zemaitis agreed that, ultimately, the taxpayers should be the ones to decide if they want to spend money on a city manager, she said it's up to the council to provide the information for the voters.
"I believe that it will go to the public," Zemaitis said. "It's a matter of not rushing it and giving them as much information as we can."
Officials estimate it would cost about $100,000 a year to hire a full-time city manager. That would be about $70,000 for salary and the rest for benefits. But the mayor conceded that it's possible Kenneth City, with only about 4,500 residents and only two departments to directly oversee — police and public works — might not require a full-time manager. The town contracts with Pinellas Park to provide fire and building services.
Under Kenneth City's current form of government, voters elect four council members and a mayor. The mayor is directly responsible for the overall budget, and each council member oversees the day-to-day activities of a town department. The mayor decides who is in charge of which department.
That can leave someone with no knowledge or experience responsible for highly technical duties — such as deciding whether the town's drainage system needs to be replaced or merely repaired. The system can also leave a gap when a council member terms out of office, decides not to run, or is shifted to another department. The system also leaves the town government open to power struggles among council members. Some council members have complained that they do not get a response when they ask other council members for help. That can happen if, for example, a public works employee is needed to do chores in the Police Department or for a town event.
The council job, which can be time consuming, also makes it hard for someone who travels or works full-time to take office, said Karen Cassidy, chairwoman of the charter review commission, in explaining the group's reasoning in her report to the council.
"We determined that inclusive government is one of several compelling reasons to convert to a professional manager model," Cassidy said. The system "has previously led to challenges in service delivery and political conflict."
Kurt Bressner, coordinator of the Florida City and County Management Association's Range Rider program, said the council-manager form of government has many advantages.
"If it's done right, it can provide better efficiencies of operation," Bressner said. "Does it depoliticize things? Yeah, it does if it's done right and the commission gives it a chance."
He added that decisions in a council-manager form are "not based on whims of commission members." Instead, it forces the commission to serve as board of directors to make a decision or to take action.
The FCCMA's Range Riders is a volunteer group of city and county managers which, among other things, serves as a resource to communities or to groups concerning the pros and cons of the city manager form of government. Members can explain how it works, what residents can expect from that form of government and to provide help in walking through the steps to convert to the new format.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.