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Kenneth City mayor-elect must quit teaching or give up post

KENNETH CITY — The judge has ruled: Teresa Zemaitis can be either a public school teacher or mayor of this town.

But she can't be both.

Senior Circuit Judge Horace Andrews ruled Friday that a clause in the city charter prohibits public employees from serving as mayor — disqualifying Zemaitis because of her teaching job.

Zemaitis had argued that the clause was unconstitutionally broad, but the judge disagreed.

Zemaitis said Friday that she will appeal the ruling if she can raise the $1,500 for court costs. She has been represented by an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is not charging her legal fees.

Zemaitis said she will not resign her job as a 10th-grade reading teacher at Dixie Hollins High School.

"That's my career. It's what pays the mortgage," Zemaitis said. As Kenneth City's part-time mayor, she would earn only $6,000 a year.

Andrews' decision came just three days after 70.5 percent of the electorate swept Zemaitis into office over incumbent Muriel Whitman.

The bizarre situation in Kenneth City — a small mid-Pinellas town — is the first of its kind in Florida and could set legal precedent nationally.

Because of the lack of precedent, Friday's ruling sent city officials into a tizzy as they tried to figure out what happens next.

A special meeting has been set for Wednesday to swear in two new Town Council members. Had Zemaitis prevailed, she also would have been sworn in.

It remained unclear Friday who will act as mayor, but it will likely be the vice mayor, who is scheduled to be chosen by the council after the swearing in ceremony.

Zemaitis may ask for an injunction seeking to keep the mayor's position open while she appeals.

Zemaitis' saga began in December when the town clerk qualified her as a mayoral candidate.

Less than a month later, the clerk, Nancy Beelman, told Zemaitis she had found an obscure section of the charter that bans public employees from serving as mayor.

Beelman gave Zemaitis the choice of quitting her job or leaving the race, which would have thrown the election to Whitman because it was too late for anyone else to qualify for the election.

Zemaitis, 40, refused to leave the race. The Town Council, joined by Whitman, 83, voted to take Zemaitis to court.

Zemaitis said the town has no reasonable cause to ban all public employees — no matter where they work — from becoming mayor.

The city and Zemaitis made their argument before Andrews on Thursday.

In his opinion, Andrews wrote: "The charter provision, as applied to the undisputed facts of this case, leaves Ms. Zemaitis as mayor-elect, with a simple choice to make: She may resign as a public schoolteacher and be sworn in to assume the duties of mayor, or she may remain a public schoolteacher and thereby be precluded from being sworn in and assuming the duties of mayor."

Courts puts a heavy burden on those who want judges to declare laws or charter provisions unconstitutional. They are considered to be constitutional until proven otherwise.

ACLU attorney Bruce Howie, who is representing Zemaitis, said he believes the clause is unconstitutional.

"If you examine it, there is no legitimate purpose behind this," Howie said. "There is no basis in law" for the town to have this provision.

>>Fast Facts

Kenneth City

Location: It is located mostly between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park.

Main drag: 54th Avenue N

Reputation: Speed trap

Population: About 4,600

Size: 7/10 of a square mile

Founder: Developer Sydney Colen, who also founded Top of the World in Clearwater. Colen named the town after his son, Kenneth.

Incorporated: 1957.

Median age

(2000 census): 45.7.

Kenneth City mayor-elect must quit teaching or give up post 03/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2009 10:55pm]
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