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Judge will rule on Kenneth City mayoral candidate Teresa Zemaitis' eligibility — if she wins

KENNETH CITY — Some people have a date with destiny, but Teresa Zemaitis has one with a judge if she's elected mayor of this town.

The town's charter prohibits public employees from serving as mayor, and a majority of the Kenneth City Council say that means Zemaitis, a 10th-grade reading teacher at Dixie Hollins High School, cannot serve if she is elected and decides to keep her day job.

A court hearing is scheduled for March 11 to determine whether she can serve as mayor. The hearing takes advantage of the narrow window between the time a winner is declared in the March 10 election and the 7 p.m. swearing-in ceremony on March 11.

The reason for the tight time frame is a legal one. If Zemaitis loses to incumbent Muriel Whitman, a retiree, then there's no problem and no reason for a judge to get involved.

"It's basically a ripeness issue," said Bruce Howie, chairman of the Pinellas ACLU legal panel.

The ACLU is representing Zemaitis in a case that will turn on the constitutionality of the ban.

Both Zemaitis and the ACLU say the provision is overly broad and has no so-called rational basis for excluding all public employees no matter what agency they work for.

"It's a fairly straightforward legal issue," Howie said.

Zemaitis, a former member of the Kenneth City Council, received certification as a candidate in December. Then, in January, Kenneth City's town clerk, Nancy Beelman, broached the obscure provision. Beelman called Zemaitis in and told her she had to resign her job or abandon the race, which would have thrown the election to Whitman because it was too late for anyone to take Zemaitis' place.

Zemaitis refused to leave the race, saying the provision applies only to mayors and not to candidates.

But the situation has torn this town apart with one side saying the delay in attempting to disqualify Zemaitis was a deliberate attempt to give Whitman an uncontested election and to disenfranchise voters who sought a change in Kenneth City government.

The other side says Zemaitis should have left the race and that the charter's meaning is clear, considering that it has never before been challenged nor have any charter review commissions previously suggested changing it.

Earlier this month, council member Wanda Dudley suggested that the council interpret the term "public employee" as applying only to those who work for Kenneth City.

Instead, the council voted to take the matter to court and ask for a judge's interpretation of the clause. The town is spending an estimated $165 an hour in legal fees to pursue the case. Zemaitis was served Thursday night with the pleadings — about a 1 1/2-inches thick document.

Judge will rule on Kenneth City mayoral candidate Teresa Zemaitis' eligibility — if she wins 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 3:30am]
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