KENNETH CITY — Council members unanimously voted to ask a judge to decide as soon as possible if the town charter allows a public schoolteacher to serve as mayor.
The goal is to get a definitive answer before the March 10 election.
Kenneth City's charter prohibits any "public employee" from serving as mayor. The obscure clause has been in the charter since at least 1982 but has never been an issue until this year when town officials tried to force Teresa Zemaitis out of the mayor's race after they had qualified her to run. Zemaitis, they said, is a public employee because she teaches reading at Dixie Hollins High School.
Since then, the town has been ripped apart as Zemaitis' supporters and others say the prohibition should apply only to those who work for Kenneth City to prevent a mayor from supervising him- or herself. Others say the ban applies to all public employees from any agency anywhere.
Council members sought a ruling from the Florida Attorney General's Office, but the state declined to provide a solid opinion, suggesting the courts might help resolve the issue. The council decided at Wednesday's meeting to follow that suggestion by hiring Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt to spearhead the case.
But Scarritt's $165-per-hour fee prompted objections from council member Wanda Dudley and some residents who said the council could easily solve the issue by voting to interpret the charter to allow Zemaitis to serve if elected.
Kenneth City resident Bob Codere reminded council members that former Kenneth City Mayor Harold Paxton had said that he had been told the prohibition applied only to Kenneth City employees.
"Another fine mess you've got us in," Codere said.
Dudley asked, "Why should we waste money?"
Dudley said she thought that the attorney general's letter gave the basis on which the council could decide. The law, she said, is that there has to be a "valid municipal purpose" for a rule. Without that, she said, the clause is not enforceable. Dudley said there is no valid reason to bar all public employees from serving as mayor although it makes sense if the prohibition applies only to Kenneth City workers.
"It's interesting that you're armed to the teeth like a lawyer," Kenneth City town attorney Paul Marino said at one point. "I compliment your legal skills."
Marino and Dudley tussled over the issue. Marino repeatedly said the issue should be left to Scarritt.
Saying, "I would really hate to see us go to court over this," Dudley made a motion to interpret the charter as applying only to Kenneth City employees. The motion failed for lack of a second.