ST. PETERSBURG — Watched by 14 town residents, elected and appointed officials, attorneys for Kenneth City and the town's mayor-elect squared off in court Thursday.
Now it's up to retired circuit Judge Horace Andrews to decide if teacher Teresa Zemaitis can be sworn into the office that she won with 70 percent of the vote. Andrews' decision is likely to come before Sunday, when he is scheduled to leave town.
But no matter the decision, the war over Zemaitis' qualifications to serve as mayor may not end there.
The Kenneth City charter bars public employees from serving as mayor. Zemaitis, a 10th-grade reading teacher at Dixie Hollins High School, has been told she must either resign her job or give up the mayor's seat she won Tuesday. Zemaitis has refused to do either, so town officials have asked a judge for help.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Bruce Howie, who represents Zemaitis, said he is "quite sure" an appeal will be filed if his client loses.
Outgoing Mayor Muriel Whitman said that if the town loses, "I'd get (town clerk) Nancy (Beelman) to call and get the consensus" of the council. If council members wanted, "we could very easily have a special meeting" to vote to appeal.
The special meeting would have to be held quickly. A new council is due to be sworn in Wednesday night and, as Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt, representing the town, said, "you'd probably have different results" with the new body.
Zemaitis maintains the prohibition against public employees serving as mayor is unconstitutional and violates her First Amendment rights. She also says the clause violates the rights of voters who want her to serve.
The town says that the clause is constitutional and that the town has valid reasons for banning public employees. Zemaitis might have time conflicts that would prevent her from attending activities, such as the monthly mayors' council meeting; she might also have conflicts of interest, Scarritt argued.
Howie responded that many of those objections also apply to people who are privately employed, yet the town charter does not prohibit them from serving as mayor.