Kenneth City seeks way to seat Teresa Zemaitis as mayor

KENNETH CITY — Vice Mayor Wanda Dudley says the town needs to find a way to put the mayor-elect into the office she won by a landslide, even if it means firing a high-powered Tampa attorney and dropping a lawsuit claiming the mayor-elect is not qualified to serve.

"As you are aware, a mayoral candidate received over 70 percent of the votes … in one of the largest voter-response elections of Kenneth City," Dudley wrote Sunday in an e-mail to town attorney John Elias. "I represent the people, and the people have spoken in the election and it is my duty to accomplish their desires."

Dudley added, "Is there anything you can do to plot a new course?"

Dudley's sentiments were repeated Monday in an e-mail to Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt. The council hired Scarritt in February to try to keep Teresa Zemaitis from becoming mayor if she won the March 10 election. The council was relying on a little-known charter clause that bars any public employee from serving as mayor. Zemaitis, a public schoolteacher, is considered a public employee. A judge has ruled the clause is constitutional, but Zemaitis has said she plans to appeal that ruling.

"Kenneth City does not have the time or the money to pursue this appeal," Dudley wrote to Scarritt, who has already presented a bill for more than $17,000 for work done during February. The town has not received a bill for March.

Dudley asked Scarritt the same thing she asked Elias: Is there a way to put Zemaitis in the mayor's seat?

Elias said Tuesday that he and Scarritt are scheduled to meet later this week with Dudley to discuss the town's options. One possible solution is to change the charter clause. A grass roots group has already presented the town with petitions from more than 340 Kenneth City voters who want to hold a special election to do just that. The question is whether such a change could be made retroactive to March 10, or even earlier, which would clear the way for Zemaitis to assume the mayor's role.

There apparently is a Florida case on the books that allowed the Legislature to amend the state Constitution retroactively. Elias said he is studying that case as part of his research to see whether it would set a precedent that would allow the Kenneth City Council to do the same thing with a charter amendment.

Dudley would not be able to act on her own, but would need the vote of the council for almost any action the town might take. Before March 10, the answer from the rest of the council would have been a resounding "no," but, as she said in her e-mails, Kenneth City has a new council.

The wave of change that swept Zemaitis, 40, into office over incumbent Muriel Whitman, 83, also brought new blood onto the council. Those two new council members — Ron Sneed and Allen Schopp — both signed the petitions to have the charter changed. But it would take all three — Dudley, Sneed and Schopp — to vote to end the lawsuit, fire Scarritt, call for a special election, and/or make any charter change retroactive.

The fourth council member, Al Carrier, is unlikely to vote to do any of those things. Carrier, 73, is the remaining member of the old guard on the council. Carrier not only voted to sue Zemaitis, he supported Whitman during the election. And, last week, he voted against appointing Dudley, another public schoolteacher, as vice mayor.

The charter prevents public employees from serving as mayor, but it does not bar any other council member or the vice mayor from being a public employee.

That means a public employee can perform all the duties of mayor, as Dudley is doing temporarily, but cannot take the title of mayor.

What she said

Vice Mayor Wanda Dudley wrote e-mails to town attorney John Elias and to Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt, who is representing Kenneth City in its fight to keep Teresa Zemaitis from becoming mayor. Both say the case needs to be dropped and a way should be found to seat Zemaitis. Here are the e-mails.

23 Mar 2009

Subject: Kenneth City appeal

Dear Tom Scarritt,

We appreciate the work that you have completed on the work of the constitutionality of the Kenneth City charter. I realize your direction was from previous council, but we now have a new council. Kenneth City does not have the time nor the money to pursue this appeal.

I believe that continuing on this path of appeal is fruitless and not in the best interest of Kenneth City. I need your help in providing Kenneth City a speedy remedy to the mayoral conflict. I intend to bring this issue up to the rest of council to discuss this direction.

Judging from the results of the last election, it is my belief that the town of Kenneth City is not interested in pursuing all the appeals in this case. I realize that this is an unusual circumstance that changes your orders of direction in defending the charter, however the people of Kenneth City have spoken loud and clear.

Is there anything you can do to plot a new course? It is my belief that, judging from the results of the election, the language in the charter that prohibits her from taking office does not have (a) valid municipal purpose.

In your opinion, how long do you think this appeal process will take?

In your opinion, do you believe this appeal process will be complicated, time consuming and expensive?

What would it take to discontinue the fight of this case?

What would happen if Kenneth City dropped the case?

It is my understanding that the petition would not be retroactive. May this council pass an ordinance to change the charter to read that it includes the mayoral election of 2009 at a special election? Meaning the retroactivity is actually part of the charter language.

If yes, please give me the correct wording for that ordinance.

If no, please give me the law that prohibits retroactivity.

If you wish to not be a part of this new direction, please let me know.

A speedy response would be appreciated. Please respond by Friday, March 27.

22 Mar 2009

Subject: Kenneth City appeal

Dear John Elias,

As I said to you last Wednesday, my priority is to stop wasting the taxpayers' money on this appeal. We have a problem with our charter and we need to fix it.

I realize the direction to (former town attorney Paul) Marino and Scarritt was from previous council, but now we have a new council. As you are aware, a mayoral candidate received over 70 percent of the votes and was in one of the largest voter-response elections of Kenneth City. I represent the people and the people have spoken in the election and it is my duty to accomplish their desires. I believe that continuing on this path of appeal is fruitless and not in the best interest of Kenneth City. I need your help in providing Kenneth City a speedy remedy to the mayoral conflict. I intend to bring this issue up to the rest of council to discuss this direction.

Is there anything you can do to plot a new course? It is my belief that, judging from the results of the election, the language in the charter that prohibits her from taking office does not have (a) valid municipal purpose.

What would it take to discontinue the fight of this case?

What would happen if Kenneth City dropped the case?

It is my understanding from our conversation that the petition would not be retroactive. May this council pass an ordinance to change the charter to read that it includes the mayoral election of 2009 at a special election? Meaning the retroactivity is actually part of the charter language.

If yes, please give me the correct wording for that ordinance.

If no, please give me the law that prohibits retroactivity.

A speedy response would be appreciated. Please respond by Friday, March 27.

Thank you.

Wanda Dudley

Vice Mayor

Kenneth City

Kenneth City seeks way to seat Teresa Zemaitis as mayor 03/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 5:25pm]

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