KENNETH CITY — In a town defined lately by its instability, Barbara Roberts was a constant.
Aside from one year off due to term limits, she had served on the town council since 2014 — the same year it reformed its archaic government and hired a town manager.
By May 10, though, Roberts believed there was nothing more she could do to help her town. Less than two months after winning reelection, she announced her resignation.
“I don’t see how our town is ever going to get out of the mess we’re in,” she said later.
Roberts was the latest of many departures from Kenneth City’s government. When fully staffed, it employs just seven people outside its 14-person police department. But since early 2021, Kenneth City has had six town managers, at least three clerks, three police chiefs and three town attorneys.
For most of the past year, town hall was staffed by a consulting firm that cost Kenneth City hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. In April, the council abruptly cleaned house again, firing the consulting firm and leaving most jobs empty.
Last month, council members appointed an interim town manager who came to the town earlier this year after applying for a part-time secretarial position. The town has not had a permanent manager in almost a year, and it has not started the process to find one.
Vice Mayor Bonnie Noble, who motioned to fire the firm, Imagine That Performance, took credit for the latest clear-out while downplaying the tumult of the past few years.
“I had an opportunity to make a change with a solution instead of just screaming that there should be a change,” she said.
But interviews with a dozen other current and former town officials, employees and residents, as well as a review of public records, depicted a town locked in cycles of dysfunction.
Lacy LaFave, the new interim town manager, said she has yet to determine how much Kenneth City owes in unpaid bills. She said she doesn’t know how much money is in the town’s reserves.
A Tampa Bay Times reporter visited town hall twice in the past two weeks during business hours. Both times, doors were locked.
Departing employees and contractors have repeatedly told the town council to get its act together. One was Randy Mora, the town’s attorney from 2014 to 2022. In an email he sent council members last year, he pointed to division on the council, poor morale among employees and the town’s financial decline.
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Those factors, he wrote in bold and italics, “legitimately jeopardize the viability of your community.”
“A nasty environment”
Kenneth City, in central Pinellas, has about 5,000 residents. For most of its history, the mayor and council ran the 1-square-mile town by themselves. One member might be in charge of the police department, another public works, whether they had experience in the field or not.
The system created instability. In 1995, a grand jury investigated the Kenneth City Police Department after allegations of ticket-fixing and harassment. Though nobody was charged, it had a forceful recommendation: Hire a town manager.
It took two decades, and another recommendation from a charter-review committee, for the town to heed that advice. Voters approved the change to a town-manager system in 2013.
Matt Campbell became Kenneth City’s first town manager in 2014. The town had “great bones,” he said, and he set about building on them, with improvements to roads and a trail system connecting the parks. He got council members regular training on ethics and the Sunshine Law.
As the spring 2021 election neared, though, some candidates and their supporters weren’t shy about expressing their distaste for him. Noble had been elected the prior year. Once, Campbell said, she approached him, pointed a finger in his face and told him he’d need a new job soon.
“Was there some intimidation?” he said. “Yes.”
A day before new council members were sworn in, Campbell agreed to a separation. Most of his staff left with him.
After a few months and two interim managers, the town hired Pete Cavalli, who took the job only to learn he had almost no staff. It didn’t help that the town’s financial situation was already precipitous.
“It only takes one thing to happen — one lawsuit, one hurricane,” he said. “I would say we had a very razor-thin reserve.”
Cavalli said he offered training, like Campbell had, but the majority on the council — Noble, Mayor Robert Howell and Kyle Cummings — wasn’t interested. They gave directions to staff without speaking to him, or expected him to carry out orders without doing his own research first, he said.
Howell’s wife, who answered the phone at their carpet cleaning business, said he was preparing for a medical procedure and may be unable to comment for this story. He did not return the phone call. Cummings initially agreed to an interview but did not answer a scheduled phone call and did not return the call.
Cavalli said Noble often told him about telling Campbell he’d be out of a job.
“It created a nasty environment,” Cavalli said. “It kind of painted the picture of, ‘I destroyed this person and I was happy about it.’”
Noble called that “an absolute lie.” She said she knew nothing about council members going over managers’ heads.
A consultant-run town
At a special meeting in April 2022, Howell read a letter excoriating Cavalli for his efforts to get Pinellas County to take over code enforcement in the town and to renew the part-time accountant’s contract. Cavalli had his resignation letter in his pocket.
His departure triggered a new exodus at town hall.
After Campbell left, the town had hired Imagine That Performance to shore up its staff in the short term. Now, the firm was back and ready from the jump: Rob Duncan, the firm’s director, was sitting in the audience when Cavalli resigned.
The town did not seek out a permanent manager. When council member Megan Zemaitis moved to start the process, the majority voted her down.
“I was constantly fought back by the same three council members,” Zemaitis said.
Duncan, who took over as interim town manager from last summer until April, initially agreed to an interview for this story but did not respond to further requests for comment.
From last June to mid-March, according to public records, Imagine That’s services cost the town $342,000 — about $100,000 more than the town would’ve spent had it hired its own employees, based on the company’s own estimate.
Kenneth City officials have now upended their town government for a third spring in a row. In April, minutes after being sworn in as vice mayor, Noble made a motion to fire Imagine That, which passed 4-0 in Zemaitis’ absence.
Noble said she considered LaFave, a former executive assistant to the city manager of Madeira Beach, well qualified for the job. Asked about the part-time job LaFave initially applied for, Noble said she had no comment: “I don’t get involved in that.”
She said she doesn’t see the town hiring a permanent manager soon. It needs to overhaul its town charter, to make more clear what the town manager does, she said, and it needs to find more money so it can afford a good manager.
But others say Kenneth City desperately needs stability.
Zemaitis said she’s been fielding emails from Spectrum about past-due town bills, and from the Pinellas County Tax Collector’s Office, which told her it couldn’t get in touch with anyone at town hall.
Roberts said she fears that a town that can’t take care of itself would have to be absorbed into the county or another city.
“I don’t want to be Lealman, I don’t want to be Pinellas Park,” she said. “I want to be Kenneth City. That’s where I moved, that’s where I live, that’s where I want to be: a small town, and everyone’s doing the right thing.”