By EMILY WUNDERLICH
USFSP Student Reporter
GULFPORT – He lives in Gulfport’s lone gated community, where he says perpetrators walk down the street at night rummaging through unlocked vehicles and a woman woke up to find a man in her bedroom.
Crime, says Frank J. Kemnetz, is the city’s biggest problem, along with government transparency. That’s why he is running for mayor in the March 12 election.
“Those crimes that were committed could have been prevented just by encouraging people to lock their doors, their vehicles and their homes,” said Kemnetz, 61. “But those habits don’t change if you’re trying to convince people that Gulfport is very safe and they’ve got nothing to worry about.
“What you see coming from government officials is, ‘We’ve got this problem under control, and we’re doing a good job.’”
Kemnetz’s platform cites neighborhoodscout.com in calling Gulfport more dangerous than New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. The website relies on 2017 data from the FBI.
Gulfport police reported in February that the number of crimes in 2018 was the lowest in 34 years.
“It’s still not reported as a crime rate,” Kemnetz said. “Until you get official numbers on the population, you don’t know exactly what the crime rate is.”
He said that even though most crimes in Gulfport are non-violent, property theft can still be “a traumatic thing for people.”
If elected, he said, he plans to increase public awareness and monitoring of city surveillance cameras, as well as “Ring” video doorbells, which allow users to share footage via social media.
Kemnetz and his wife moved into the Pasadena Yacht and Country Club neighborhood in 2012. They live in a 3,895-square-foot home worth $826,400.
He said he decided to run for mayor two years ago, when the incumbent, Sam Henderson, helped engineer pay raises for himself and members of the City Council. The mayor now makes $14,400 a year and council members, $10,800.
“They said at that time that (the City) Council has only had one increase in the last 14 years,” he said. “That one increase in the past 14 years was just three years prior, when (Henderson) was mayor, and it was a 25 percent increase.
“So you put the two together and you realize he’s trying to double his pay in three years. That bothered me.”
“I don’t have an opinion about what the appropriate level of pay should be, but I do have an opinion that it should be researched and recommended by an independent third party,” Kemnetz said.
Kemnetz grew up on a farm with a family of 10 in Strawn, Illinois, where he said his upbringing helped shape his values.
“You learn from a very early age the strong work ethic that’s required on a farm,” he said. “For example, I used to milk cows by hand, morning and night, seven days a week.”
In 1980, he graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering because he wanted to help solve the energy crisis.
He’s a retired executive of three overseas Exxon affiliates: Exxon Al-Khaleej, Exxonmobil Upstream Ventures Middle East and Exxonmobil Abu Dhabi Offshore Petroleum.
His career made him an advocate for solar energy, which he plans to stress if elected.
“Even though the Middle East is a big oil- and gas-producing region, they had a very strong emphasis on solar energy because they had so much potential,” he said.
With a background in engineering, Kemnetz has pledged to improve the city’s infrastructure.
“Your first priority in terms of maintaining integrity of assets is you have to know the condition of the assets,” he said. “If you’re not doing inspections or pressure-testing, things of this nature, you have no idea what kind of problems you might have.”
When Gulfport conducted a study on its sewer system in 2016, only part of the system was studied using video cameras, according to the Gabber, a community weekly.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection required the city to record its entire sewer system in order to qualify for low-interest loans to repair it.
“So you’ve got to ask yourself: If the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had to step in and mandate these repairs and so forth, what does that say about the job the city was doing in taking care of infrastructure?” Kemnetz said.
Even though he’s retired, Kemnetz serves as president of his neighborhood association. He also sings in his church’s choir and is president of a barbershop quartet group called the Florida Suncoast Chorus.
While living overseas, he served as school board chairman of the American Community School of Abu Dhabi – an institution accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools that provides American-style curriculum to 1,200 students from 60 countries.
He was also a regional board member of INJAZ Al-Arab, a nonprofit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and financial literacy to Arab youth.
“A lifetime of being involved in service activities is one of the reasons why, moving here, I wanted to get involved in activities where I could support and give back to the community,” he said.
He said he will rely on public opinion to drive most of his decisions as mayor.
Although residents have the opportunity to comment at City Council meetings, those comments don’t represent the broader community if only 10 or 15 people show up, he said. He plans to generate feedback through surveys via robocall or email.
Kemnetz said he believes the character of the city depends heavily on the character of its leadership, which is why he vows to lead based on “the will of the people” rather than his own agenda.
“In order to be able to preserve character, you have to have clarity from citizens as to what you really mean by that,” he said.