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Kenneth City council all tied up

Published Oct. 9, 2005

The Kenneth City Town Council could agree on one thing Tuesday. Namely, they were never going to agree.

After more than a dozen votes, two hours of discussion, a futile attempt to seek legal advice and prolonged periods of profound confusion, the council members went home Tuesday without the one thing they had sought _ a fifth member.

They were trying to fill the seat of Carl Schleck, who died in a car crash June 4.

Tuesday's impasse, which rendered the Town Council virtually paralyzed, is only the latest in a series of misfortunes for this tiny mid-Pinellas municipality.

"We're the laughingstock of the state now," council member Karen Kennedy said later. "It's sad."

Mayor Lester Eshleman and two Town Council members were charged June 2 with violating Florida's Sunshine Law, which requires elected officials to discuss the public's business openly.

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office charged Eshleman, council member Harold Paxton, Schleck and three former council members with meeting secretly to discuss matters affecting Kenneth City residents. Prosecutors say the mayor and council members met privately 12 times between October 1991 and November 1992.

Two days later, Schleck died.

Eight Kenneth City residents applied to fill his seat, and the council agreed to consider four of those. One of the four, former council member Charles Knox, has been charged by the state attorney's office with violating the state's open meetings law on two occasions.

The Town Charter allows the council 30 days to decide on Schleck's replacement, who would hold the seat for only about 90 days. But with an even number of votes, the council split into two factions unable to agree even on a method of ranking candidates for the vacant seat.

Eshleman and freshman council member Bea Lodermeier would approve only Knox's appointment. Paxton and Kennedy, who also is serving her first term, would not agree to appoint Knox. They voted for either Elaine Vaughan, an accounting clerk for the St. Petersburg Fire Department, or Ron D'Andrea, the senior printer for St. Petersburg Junior College.

Dale Balke, a retired military officer who also was considered for the appointment, withdrew his name after several votes and urged the council to vote for Knox.

Twice, Paxton suggested council members allow city residents to vote for a replacement at a special election, and twice the suggestion failed. The first time, Paxton was unable to draw a second to his motion. The second time, he withdrew the motion when it appeared to receive little support.

At one point, Eshleman appeared confused by the whole process. "So, now, where do we stand?" he said after Paxton's first attempt to call a special election failed.

Council members finally adjourned the meeting at about 11 a.m., with hopes of reaching their attorney, Andrew Salzman. But Salzman couldn't be reached to attend a 1 p.m. continuation of the meeting, and the council called one more vote. After yet another deadlock, council members agreed to meet again tonight at 7:30.

"I'm at my wit's end to know which way to go from here," Eshleman said shortly before adjourning in the morning. "It's an impasse all the way."