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Kenneth City can validate Teresa Zemaitis as mayor with charter change

KENNETH CITY — Although Teresa Zemaitis was elected mayor in a landslide last year, she never exactly became mayor. A previously obscure provision of the Town Charter bars any "public employee'' from holding the office, so Zemaitis — a public school teacher — eventually settled for the title mayor pro tem.

Voters will have a chance to erase that provision Tuesday by retroactively changing the charter so Zemaitis can serve out her term and all future candidates who are public employees can hold the mayor's job.

If voters turn down the proposed amendment, Zemaitis could revive a lawsuit she filed, and the town could find itself back in court defending the prohibition.

The dispute began after Zemaitis qualified to run for mayor against then-incumbent Muriel Whitman. Town officials first said she could run, but then, when it was too late for anyone to step in, they disqualified Zemaitis because she teaches 10th grade reading at Dixie Hollins High School.

Zemaitis refused to abandon the race and soundly defeated Whitman 578-242 with 70.5 percent of the vote. The town sued Zemaitis and won in the lower court. Zemaitis appealed, and the two sides began negotiations.

While the legal wrangling went on, council member Wanda Dudley, herself a public school teacher, acted as mayor.

The town and Zemaitis eventually reached a compromise: She would be sworn in as mayor pro tem until the next election, when voters would have a chance to retroactively change the charter.

The proposed change is couched in confusing legalese, but the bottom line is this: If a majority votes "yes," the charter will be changed so that any public employee, except one who works for Kenneth City, would be able to serve as mayor. Zemaitis would then be sworn in as mayor and would complete her three-year term.

If a majority votes "no," then Zemaitis would be removed from office and could go back to court. It is unclear who would take over as mayor.

Zemaitis said she has talked to many residents who believe the change is a shoo-in. But she warned that might not be the case.

"Beware of voter apathy," Zemaitis said. "No one can assume that the referendum will pass because of the election results last year. It is just as important, if not more so, to get to the polls on March 9. Resident support meant so much to me last year. I am hopeful that our town can count on their support again to avoid chaos."

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Kenneth City can validate Teresa Zemaitis as mayor with charter change 03/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 4:36pm]
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