KENNETH CITY — Five residents are kicking off a grass roots effort to change this town's charter to allow a public school teacher to serve as mayor, if she is elected.
All they have to do is get 325 or so registered voters to sign a petition saying they want to let the people decide in a referendum whether the charter should be changed.
Their movement began as a way to force the Town Council's hand after members refused last week to put the proposal on the March 10 ballot. Kenneth City town attorney Paul Marino said there was no time to get the measure on the upcoming ballot even if the council had voted to do so.
The issue as a whole came to light earlier this month when Town Clerk Nancy Beelman told mayoral candidate Teresa Zemaitis that she had to quit her job as a reading teacher at Dixie Hollins High School or get out of the race. The town charter forbids public employees from serving as mayor. Marino has interpreted that to include teachers in public school.
Zemaitis refused to get out of the race, saying the clause applies not to candidates but to mayors. Beelman has said she will not swear Zemaitis in or seat her if she wins the election.
Maureen Boberg, the petition group's spokesperson, is troubled by the fact that President Barack Obama has repeatedly urged people to get involved, yet Zemaitis and others cannot serve their local government because they are teachers.
"For us to say that because she is a schoolteacher … she can't do it, is ludicrous," Boberg said. "We have to do something to make it right. That is so wrong."
Boberg, who is a state employee, said she also would be barred from serving as mayor.
"To say that I am less than an equal citizen because I am a state employee is crap," she said.
The group's goal is to change the charter language to make it clear that the clause applies only to those who work for Kenneth City itself. That is the way the clause was interpreted in the past, former Mayor Harold Paxton said. The idea was to prevent someone from winding up as mayor and supervising himself.
Boberg said an attorney is reviewing the proposed language for the petition. She said group members hope to have it ready by Friday so they can take it to Beelman for approval. After that, they have to get 10 percent of the town's registered voters to sign.
If all goes well, she said, the petition drive could begin as early as this weekend.
But even if the group gets the required signatures, it's unlikely the item would appear on the March 10 ballot because the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections needs at least 60 days before an election to have ballots prepared and mailed to absentee voters.