KENNETH CITY — Under the rallying cry of "take your city back," more than 80 residents crowded into Wednesday's council meeting to push for a charter change that would allow a public schoolteacher to serve as mayor if she's elected in March.
At the end of two brutal hours, town attorney Paul Marino had shot down most suggestions as impossible for one reason or another, but the council had voted to ask Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum for his opinion.
Then, two days later, Marino, 69, confirmed that he plans to retire as town attorney, but he said that Wednesday's pummeling by furious residents or recent conflicts over the "neatness ordinance" had nothing to do with his decision.
"For several months, I have advised the mayor and others that I was going to retire this year. While I will continue to maintain a very specialized law practice working with nonprofit organizations and other specialized government work, I promised my wife that I will continue to cut back so that we can do more traveling and enjoy life," Marino wrote in an e-mail to the Times. "Also, for the record, this decision has nothing to do with the hue and cry of a small segment of the town residents over Ordinance 562 or the current issues related to the election for mayor in Kenneth City."
The past two years or so have been strife-ridden in this town of about 4,500.
This latest battle began Jan. 8 when Town Clerk Nancy Beelman told mayoral candidate Teresa Zemaitis she would have to get out of the race or resign her job at Dixie Hollins High School because the town charter prohibits public employees from serving as mayor. Zemaitis refused to do either, saying she was a candidate and not the mayor.
The news that some voters would be deprived of a choice in the March 10 election or that, if Zemaitis' bid for mayor is successful, some voters would not have their choice take office provoked outrage across Kenneth City.
Residents came to the council Wednesday to force council members to find a way to let Zemaitis serve. But rather than sympathy, they got "no." To a plea that a charter amendment be placed on the March 10 ballot, Marino said, no, there is not enough time.
There is also not enough time, he said, for a petition to change the charter. To a suggestion that the process for a charter change be accelerated, Marino said no. A suggestion that the question be placed on the ballot and the process to get it there be done before the election, Marino said no. To council member Wanda Dudley's suggestion that they ignore Marino's interpretation of the charter and agree that it was meant to apply only to Kenneth City employees, the rest of the council said no.
Finally, residents took Marino up on a comment that the Florida attorney general be consulted. They demanded that the council vote to tell Marino to seek McCollum's opinion as soon as possible on three questions: Does "public employee" include public schoolteachers in this context? If so, is the clause constitutional? And, if Zemaitis wins, can she wait to be sworn in until after the charter is changed?
But even if McCollum answers the questions, his opinion won't be the final say. His Web site says: "All legal opinions issued by this office, whether formal or informal, are persuasive authority and not binding."