KENNETH CITY — In a historic move, voters here overwhelmingly chose Tuesday to change their style of government.
About 61 percent — 405 — of 664 total voters said they want a council-manager form of government. Under a council-manager form, a professionally trained manager runs the daily activities of the government while an elected mayor and council set policy. Under Kenneth City's current format, which has been in place for 56 years, each of four council members runs a town department. The mayor acts as the fiscal head of the town.
"I'm really happy because I wasn't sure" how the vote would go, Mayor Teresa Zemaitis said. "I guess it goes to show people are paying more attention than (we) realize."
Zemaitis said she thinks the vote is a continuation of what was started in 2009 when she was first elected. She defeated old guard incumbent Muriel Whitman, then 83, with 70.5 percent of the vote. Zemaitis, 40 at the time, ran as a harbinger of change.
Kenneth City and its approximately 4,500 residents have long been a lightning rod for controversy in Pinellas County. The town has become known for constant spatting and backbiting among council members who seem to take more pleasure in fighting among themselves than trying to care for their town.
As far back as the early to mid 1990s, a grand jury suggested the town should go to a council-manager format as a way to help prevent some of the political sniping. It's a suggestion that has been made several times in the almost 20 years since by frustrated residents and the occasional elected official. But town councils have always nixed the idea, saying the town could not afford a manager.
A year or so ago, a volunteer citizens committee studied the town charter, or constitution, and again suggested Kenneth City change its type of government. This time, the council chose to let the people decide.
Now that they have, the next step, Zemaitis said, is holding a workshop to discuss details of the transition. Under the proposal, a manager must be chosen no later than the March municipal elections.
The biggest decision, Zemaitis said, is whether to hire a full-time or part-time manager. There's already a split among council members over that issue, she said.
Zemaitis said she believes a full-time manager is best, at least at first. The details involved in setting up a new government will be time consuming especially when combined with the daily duties of a city manager. A year or two from now, when things are settled and established, it might be possible, she said, to scale back to a part-time manager.
In the meantime, Zemaitis said she's looking forward to a change in her job description. Rather than having to deal with daily minutiae, she said, it will be possible to look to Kenneth City's future to make it a better place to live.