Saturday, February 17, 2018
News Roundup

Kenneth City voters get a chance to change government

KENNETH CITY — This town's government has for a long time drawn complaints from residents about petty bickering and rolled eyes from nonresidents transfixed by reports of the seemingly nonstop squabbling.

Both residents and nonresidents have frequently suggested the remedy is to revamp Kenneth City's government but, for years, Town Council members have refused.

Until now.

Council members have given their constituents a chance to put up or shut up by letting them vote Nov. 5 to change Kenneth City's government to a council/manager format. If the proposal passes, a city manager would be hired by late February or early March, in time for the town's municipal election.

"As far as I know, this is the first time" voters have been given the chance to decide whether to change the way the town is run, Mayor Teresa Zemaitis said.

"The people have been complaining about the political infighting and the backstabbing," Zemaitis said. "We're hopeful this would be the solution."

The council is holding a special meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Community Hall, 4600 58th St. N, to discuss the proposal. Zemaitis said she plans to allow for questions from audience members. The goal, she said, is to make sure residents understand the differences between the current council-mayor format of governing and the proposed council/manager form.

Under Kenneth City's form of government, voters elect a mayor and four council members. Each council member is in charge of a town department and is responsible for its daily activities. The mayor is the fiscal officer and keeps track of spending and the budget.

It's a government that has come under heavy fire for at least 20 years. A grand jury in the 1990s wrote a scathing report citing a dysfunctional government characterized by cliques, backbiting and petty tiffs. It has also been criticized for placing untrained elected officials, however well-meaning, in charge of vital government activities, such as policing and the repair or replacement of infrastructure.

Sometimes, council members turn into advocates for the departments they supervise.

Under the proposed council/manager form, voters would continue to elected a mayor and four council members. These council members would be banned from influencing daily activities. Their job would be to set policy, hire a city manager to make sure those goals are carried out, hire a town attorney and pass a budget that would be presented to them by the city manager. The mayor and council would have no individual power. They would only have power as a group.

A professional city manager would handle the daily activities of the town. He, or she, would have the ability to hire and fire the police chief and other staff members without the approval of the council.

In theory, recent council squabbles over the Police Department's alleged failure to properly fill out purchase orders and track expenditures would not happen in a council/manager form of government. The council would set the policies for spending. The city manager would make sure employees followed the rules. If someone did not, the city manger would have the authority to enforce the rules, even if it meant firing the employee. The issue would likely never reach the council except as an information item from the city manager, said Kurt Bressner, coordinator of the Florida City and County Association's Range Rider program. The Range Riders are retired city and county managers who volunteer to provide basic guidance and assistance on the council/manager form of government.

Bressner said the council/manager format has many advantages. One of the biggest, he said, is that it frees council members to work more collaboratively on bigger policy issues and envisioning the future of the town rather than concentrating on daily minutiae.

He agreed, however, that to succeed, council members have to be willing to change.

"There has to be an acknowledgment by the elected official … that their role and function is going to change (and that) the way they conduct business changes as well," Bressner said. "Everything goes back to the quality of who's in office at the time and what their interests are."

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

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