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City manager debate heats up in Kenneth City

KENNETH CITY — Most residents who spoke during a town meeting Wednesday said they oppose a proposal to hire a professional manager to run the town's government.

Many who opposed the idea said they saw no need for a manager. They, and others, were also worried about the possible cost.

The mayor and council have been solving problems without a manager, said John Case, but now they're telling residents they can't do the job.

"That upsets me," Case said.

Council member Wanda Dudley said the job is more complex than it looks and that complexity can prevent some people from running for office because they don't want to be responsible for the daily minutiae of operating a government. Changing the format, she said, could encourage more people to seek office.

"Our form of government is basically archaic," Dudley said.

Under Kenneth City's form of government, voters elect a mayor and four council members. The mayor acts as the fiscal officer of the town and each council member oversees the daily management of a town department, including police and public works.

It's a style of government that, as practiced by Kenneth City, has come under severe criticism since at least the early to mid 1990s when scandals and feuding among council members prompted a grand jury investigation. The grand jury issued a scathing report about the town government and suggested, among other things, that the town change its style of government to a council-manager form and hire a professional to run the government.

Successive councils have discussed the idea, but have always nixed it by saying the city could not afford a manager. Instead, the town has run through a succession of police chiefs and lurched through scandals and almost constant squabbling among council members. At times in the past, the government has been run more like a social club with the mayor, council members and police chiefs holding regular coffee klatches in town hall.

Council members have struggled with other issues, ranging from an inability to work together — for example, a council member in charge of buildings who can't get the council member in charge of public works to replace moldy ceiling tiles — to a lack of continuity — council members who begin a long-term project only to term out of office, lose an election, or decide not to run.

Those issues, and others, stirred a group of residents chosen to serve a charter review commission to suggest that it's time to go to a council-manager form of government. Under that format, voters would still elect a mayor and four council members who would be in charge of setting policy, passing a budget, hiring the town attorney and a manager. The manager would oversee daily activities of the town, make sure the policies set by the council were enforced and would have the hiring and firing say-so over all other employees.

The council agreed to give voters the choice of how they wanted their town run in the future. That choice will come on Nov. 5. Those who want a change will vote yes to a referendum item. Those who like Kenneth City as it is, should vote no.

"We've passed the task on to you," Mayor Teresa Zemaitis told the approximately 60 residents at Wednesday's meeting that had been called to answer questions about the proposal. "Council's not making this decision at all."

The proposal on the ballot would also usher in other changes to the town charter. Among those would be to eliminate the cap on salaries for the mayor and council members. Currently, the salary of the mayor is capped at $500 a month and council members at $300 a month. If the changes are approved, the cap would be eliminated and those salaries could be increased if a majority of the council voted to do so.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at or (727) 893-8450.