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Kenneth City meeting turns into brouhaha over manager

KENNETH CITY — The workshop was called to discuss the wisdom of hiring a city manager, and by the end, some residents said it was a prime example of the need for a professional to run the town.

The meeting, they said, was an insult to Kenneth City and its residents because council members spent much of the time squabbling over allegedly missing stakes for yard signs, a supposedly missing photograph from the Town Hall and whether the police chief should fill out paper work to spend tax money. Residents were equally unimpressed when Mayor Teresa Zemaitis turned her presentation about the wisdom of changing the government to a council-manager format into one about the possible elimination of the Police Department.

"Every one of you, shame on you. … This is embarrassing. This is embarrassing. … This isn't working," Kenneth City resident Maureen Boberg said. "All of you have done an injustice to us tonight."

Boberg's comments echoed those of Lori DeLisle and Karen Cassidy. DeLisle and Cassidy served on a committee that unanimously recommended last September that the town government be changed so a trained professional could oversee Kenneth City's daily activities.

"I think the first half of this meeting really illustrates why we need a town manager," DeLisle said.

Council members agreed to hold a workshop next month to discuss not only the prospect of a town manager but to go line-by-line through the rest of the committee's report. It's unlikely they will discuss the possibility of disbanding the Police Department and turning over daily operations to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. That's not one of the charter review group's suggestions and most of the council appeared to oppose the idea, saying they felt ambushed and blindsided by the suggestion.

Zemaitis said she was not advocating elimination of the Police Department, but was gathering information so taxpayers could see the costs. Adding a city manager, she said, could end up increasing the tax rate. Eliminating the Police Department could make a city manager unnecessary and would lower costs.

Kenneth City, located along both sides of 54th Avenue N between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, is one of the county's smallest municipalities. It is about 1 square mile in area and has about 4,900 residents. It has an annual operating budget of about $2.02 million. About $556,760, or 27.5 percent, of that comes from property taxes.

The city has a mayor and four council members who are elected at-large. Each council member oversees the daily activities of a department and the mayor acts as the chief financial officer of the town. It is one of a handful of Pinellas municipalities with that style government.

It's a style that has been heavily criticized for at least 20 years, dating back to when a grand jury issued a scathing report citing a dysfunctional government characterized by cliques, backbiting and petty tiffs. The grand jury recommended converting to a manager-council style government in which a trained professional would run the daily activities and the council would be responsible for setting policy and passing a budget presented by the manager. The change would have to be approved by voters. But it takes council approval to put the issue on the ballot.

Thus far, one council after another has refused even though the prospect has been suggested many times throughout the years. The reason: The councils say the town can't afford a manager.

The idea has become more popular among some activists who point to the continual petty bickering on the council. Some have charged the town is run more like a homeowners association than a government. Some pointed to last week's meeting for examples that included disputes over "missing" yard stakes and a photograph:

• Council member Joanne DeSimone, who oversees the Police Department and the fire contract with Pinellas Park, complained that yard stakes were missing from a locked town building. Zemaitis responded that the stakes never existed. There was no purchase order or receipt or any other documentation showing the town had ever owned stakes. DeSimone insisted the town owned the stakes and they were missing. The situation was resolved when council member Phil Redisch volunteered to donate to the town the stakes he'd used for his campaign signs. And Adam Mayefsky, who oversees the public works department, suggested he could change the lock.

• DeSimone also complained that a photograph of the fire station was missing from the Town Hall. The photograph, she said, showed a "16" on it, the number assigned to the Kenneth City station. The photo was needed, she said, so she could make sure new lettering on the station would match the lettering that had been there at one time. Zemaitis and former Kenneth City fire Chief Donald Mecomber said there never was a picture with a "16" showing on it. The photograph of the station in Town Hall, which has no "16" on it, is the same one that has been there. No photo is missing, they said.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Kenneth City meeting turns into brouhaha over manager 05/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 2:32pm]
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