KENNETH CITY — A judge has ruled a public school teacher ineligible to serve as mayor of this town, so who did the council pick to act as mayor while an appeal works its way through the courts? A public school teacher.
The choice of Wanda Dudley, a teacher at Westgate Elementary School, was greeted with applause, but served to highlight the frustration many in Kenneth City have felt over the past months as the saga of Teresa Zemaitis has played out.
Zemaitis, 40, a 10th-grade reading teacher at Dixie Hollins High School, won the March 10 election with 70.5 percent of the vote. Her 578-242 vote victory over Mayor Muriel Whitman, 83, was seen by some as a triumph over an out-of-touch old guard that for years has had a lock on the leadership of this mid-Pinellas town of 4,600.
Zemaitis' triumph was short-lived. An obscure clause in the Kenneth City charter bans public employees from serving as mayor. The town clerk ruled her ineligible to serve. A judge ruled the clause constitutional, but Zemaitis has said she will appeal.
At Wednesday's meeting, when Zemaitis would have been sworn in, she instead stood leaning against the back wall watching as Ron Sneed and Allen Schopp were sworn in as new council members.
Then town attorney John Elias explained the legalities: The council would select a vice mayor who would act as mayor during Zemaitis' appeal. If Zemaitis wins, she becomes mayor. If she loses, the vice mayor would become interim mayor until the next election in March 2010, when voters would choose anew.
Then came the legal wrinkle.
As long as the vice mayor only acts as mayor, any of the council members, including Dudley, could serve. But the minute the vice mayor becomes an "interim mayor," then Dudley, too, would be ineligible because she is a public employee. Dudley could then step down as vice mayor and the council could choose a new one, who would become interim mayor until March. Or Dudley could quit her teaching job.
With that understanding, Dudley became vice mayor by a 3-1 vote. Al Carrier, 73, the sole remaining member of the old guard on the council, voted against her.
After the meeting, a committee of residents turned in petitions with 342 signatures — about 50 more than needed — asking the council to hold a special election to change the charter so that any public employee other than those working for Kenneth City could serve as mayor. The special election cannot be held for at least 60 days while signatures are checked and certified.
If such an election were held and the charter changed, it would come too late for Zemaitis. Elias said the change would not be retroactive to March 10. Zemaitis' only hope to take the office she won by such a wide margin is to win in the courts.