Deal to seat Zemaitis as Kenneth City mayor is 'very close'
KENNETH CITY -- Attorneys are haggling over the final details of an agreement that would allow Mayor-elect Teresa Zemaitis to take the office she won last month in a landslide election.
Zemaitis, 40, received 70.5 percent of the vote in the March 10 election, but was barred from taking office because of a little-known clause in Kenneth City's charter that bans public employees from serving as mayor. Zemaitis is a reading teacher at Dixie Hollin High School. A judge ruled last month that the clause is constitutional, but Zemaitis is appealing that decision.
In an effort to stop spending more tax money on attorneys and to give the voters what they wanted, the council is trying to negotiate a settlement. The idea is to seat Zemaitis as mayor pro tem until the election next March when Kenneth City voters would have a chance to change the charter to allow Zemaitis to serve. The change would be retroactive so that, if it passed, Zemaitis would assume the mayor's seat permanently. If it did not pass, she would have to step down or quit her teaching job.
Although a vote on the agreement was scheduled for tonight's meeting, that didn't happen.Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt, who was hired to keep Zemaitis out of the seat, said that a deal was "very close." Attorneys, he said, have a framework but "we have some issues that are very challenging."
One issue is when Zemaitis would be sworn in. The town's proposal would see her sworn in at the next regularly scheduled council meeting after the agreement is signed. If the council held a special meeting this month to sign the agreement, then she would not be sworn in until May. Or, if the council opted to wait until its regular meeting in May to ratify the agreement, she would not be sworn in until June, three months after she was elected.
Zemaitis said she wants a clause in the agreement that would require her to be sworn in more quickly.
The other issue lies with the charter change. A grass-roots group has given the council enough petitions to force a referendum to change the charter language. But the group did not ask that the change be retroactive.
Scarritt said that leaves the town with the problem of having to ask the group to withdraw its petitions so that the town can submit its retroactive amendment to the voters. Scarritt said he had spoken with the state Department of Elections about the issue and "they've told us they've never seen anything like this before."
Audience members were not allowed to comment or ask Scarritt questions. But, after he left, Jaynie Hester, a member of the committee that spearheaded the petition drive, said her group would withdraw their petitions if they had a written guarantee that the town council would do as it promised by putting the retroactive charter change on the ballot.
--- Anne Lindberg, Times Staff Writer