Sunday, June 24, 2018
News Roundup

Kenneth City to discuss changing its form of government

KENNETH CITY — Almost 20 years ago, a Pinellas grand jury released a scathing report that condemned this town's government for bickering, infighting, lack of leadership and overall dysfunction.

One improvement the grand jury suggested was to redesign the Kenneth City government by hiring a professional city manager to run the town's daily activities. But the council ignored that and other grand jury recommendations.

Let the conversation begin again.

The Town Council is scheduled to meet tonight to discuss the pros and cons of having a city manager.

In the two decades since the grand jury report, the Kenneth City government has continued to lurch from one crisis to another piloted by council members who often seem to spend more time squabbling among themselves over petty matters rather than uniting to define a vision for the future and to place the town firmly on the path to reach that goal.

Periodically, through the ebb and flow of sniping and arguments, some residents have suggested that hiring a trained administrator might help avoid some of the infighting and scandals that have plagued Kenneth City. But the council ignored those pleas as well.

Under the town's current form of government — like less than a handful of others in Pinellas County — 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.

The result is that well-meaning people with no knowledge or experience can end up responsible for ensuring highly expensive, highly technical projects are done properly — such as deciding whether the town's drainage system needs replacement or repair. Or they end up overseeing departments they know nothing about — lay people overseeing the police or fire departments, for example.

Continuity may suffer when someone loses an election or is term-limited out of office, or, if the mayor decides to switch the leadership of individual departments. The system also leaves the town government vulnerable 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.

Much of that could be avoided, proponents say, if someone with training and experience in governmental management was responsible for daily activities and negotiating with vendors, contractors and the like. He or she would also be responsible for hiring and overseeing department heads, such as police chiefs and public works administrators. The council's sole duties would be to set policy and pass the budget.

But changing to a council-manager form of government would require a charter change, which would be done by a vote of the people. Putting the idea in front of voters has never passed muster with council members who would lose some power in such a change.

The reason that has been given is the cost. Kenneth City, opponents say, cannot afford to pay the estimated $100,000 a year to hire a full-time city manager.

But Mayor Teresa Zemaitis has conceded that many believe Kenneth City can no longer afford to be without a city manager.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.

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