KENNETH CITY — Voters who wanted change in this town's government will likely have to wait a little longer while attorneys paw through legal tomes trying to figure out what's next.
As things stand, Teresa Zemaitis, 40, who won the mayor's race with an overwhelming 70.5 percent of the vote, cannot be mayor unless she resigns from her job as a 10th-grade teacher at Dixie Hollins High School.
A clause in the Kenneth City charter forbids public employees from serving as mayor. Zemaitis argued that the clause was unconstitutional because it was too broad and the town had no good reason for the prohibition. But senior circuit Judge Horace Andrews disagreed. He ruled Friday that the clause is constitutional and Zemaitis must choose between her job and the part-time mayor's position.
For Zemaitis, there is no choice; she loves her teaching job and it pays her mortgage. So, Zemaitis is appealing Andrews' decision. The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing her, has agreed to do the legal work for free, but she must pay $1,500 in court costs. Zemaitis has gone back to her supporters to ask for contributions. That $1,500 is minor compared to what Kenneth City officials are spending to keep Zemaitis out of office. Last month, the Town Council voted to hire Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt to represent Kenneth City against Zemaitis.
Scarritt submitted a bill for $17,244.45 to Kenneth City. That covers the work Scarritt and his firm performed from Feb. 11 through Feb. 27. No bill has yet been submitted for work and legal arguments done this month. That amount also does not include work outgoing Kenneth City attorney Paul Marino has done on the case since January, when town officials first discovered the obscure clause.
The legal work won't end there, no matter what. John Elias, who took over this past week from the retiring Marino, said he is reviewing the charter.
At this point, it appears that the new council will be sworn in during a special council meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Community Hall, 4600 58th St. N. Elias said the four-member council will choose a vice mayor, who will act as mayor. It is unclear whether that person will become the permanent mayor and serve out the three-year term or whether Zemaitis will get an injunction preventing the mayor's seat from being filled until her appeals have been decided.
If Zemaitis drops her case or ultimately loses, then the appointment of a mayor would open up a seat on the council. The council would then choose that member. Elias said he doesn't think there's anything to prevent the council from choosing Zemaitis for that position.
"We've come full circle," Elias said.