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Lealman firefighter not backing down in bid for Kenneth City council seat

KENNETH CITY — A Lealman firefighter has vowed to fight an effort to kick him off the ballot in the March election for Town Council.

Kenneth City officials sent Ronald Neuberger a letter Wednesday questioning his qualifications to run for Town Council. At issue is a section of the Town Charter that specifically requires candidates to be a registered voter and resident "of the town for two (2) years immediately preceding qualifying."

Neuberger, they say, was not registered to vote in Kenneth City until three days before he qualified. Records from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections indicate that, until he telephoned them Dec. 15 to switch addresses, he had been registered to vote in Pinellas Park. Elections records also indicate that Neuberger was not voting in Pinellas Park — he last cast a ballot in the November 2004 general election.

Neuberger said his failure to change his voter registration from Pinellas Park to Kenneth City was merely an oversight. But he also said he does not believe that should disqualify him.

Kenneth City officials, he said, are misinterpreting their own charter to require that he be registered to vote in the town. The clause, he said, should be interpreted to mean that he was registered to vote for at least two years before qualifying. The location of that registration should not matter, he said. Because he was registered to vote, Neuberger said he should be allowed to remain on the ballot.

Kenneth City officials also have other concerns about Neuberger's ability to serve on the council. They recommended that he contact the state Ethics Commission over possible conflicts between his job as a Lealman firefighter and potential votes as a council member.

Kenneth City contracts with the Lealman fire district to provide fire service to the town. But Lealman recently canceled the contract because Kenneth City had moved to annex several properties out of the fire district, an action permissible under the terms of the contract. Kenneth City and Lealman are trying to negotiate their differences.

If Neuberger wins a place on the council, he might have to vote on both the contract and future annexations. That could present a conflict because he gets his paycheck from Lealman and his vote could be seen as affecting his employer.

Neuberger, 42, agreed that, if elected, he should not be allowed to vote on the contract, but he said he believes he could talk about it during council discussions. And, Neuberger said he does not see the annexation issue as any conflict at all, despite the impact annexations might have on the Lealman fire budget.

Neuberger said that, as a Kenneth City resident, he would be able to advocate to the council that they consider whether they could adequately serve properties they annex. Being elected, he said, should not take that right away from him. Neuberger said he believes he would be able to both debate and vote on annexations.

But, he has taken the town's advice and contacted the state Ethics Commission for a ruling about the issues. Ethics Commission representatives could not be reached Thursday for comment.

The situation appears eerily similar to last March's town election when Mayor Pro Tem Teresa Zemaitis was told after she qualified that she could not run. In her case, town officials discovered a clause in the charter that bans public employees from serving as mayor. Zemaitis is a public school teacher. Zemaitis refused to get out of the race and defeated incumbent Muriel Whitman by a landslide. She lost her bid in court to take office, but in a settlement agreement, she assumed the title of mayor pro tem. Voters will have a chance in March to retroactively change the charter to allow her to serve her term.

Zemaitis said Thursday that the two situations were "similar, yet very dissimilar."

Zemaitis said she had been a known quantity in the town — and had previously served on the Town Council — unlike Neuberger, who is making his first run for office and who has not been civically active in Kenneth City until now.

Plus, Zemaitis said, she stayed in the race only because leaving it would have taken all choices away from Kenneth City voters because Whitman was the only other candidate. In this case, she said, voters have choices for the two council seats: Incumbents Al Carrier, 73, and Wanda Dudley, 52, are running for re-election, and newcomer Joanne DeSimone, 65, has also qualified.

"I stood my ground on principle," Zemaitis said. "Nobody questioned my motives for staying in the race, or running in the first place, for that matter. I think people will question why he is running (and wonder) as a Lealman firefighter, why he is interested in running right now."

But Neuberger said he's also standing on principal and is searching for an attorney to take his case at no, or low, cost so he can fight for his right to run for the council.

The Town Council consists of a mayor and four council members. It is a council-as-manager form of government, meaning each council member is responsible for the day-to-day operation of one town department. Each council member serves a two-year term. The council holds at least one meeting and, generally, one workshop a month. Council members are paid $300 a month.

The two top vote-getters in the March 9 election will go into office.

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

Lealman firefighter not backing down in bid for Kenneth City council seat 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 3:30am]

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