KENNETH CITY — A resolution may be at hand in this town's long-running turmoil over Mayor-elect Teresa Zemaitis' ability to take the seat she won by a landslide.
The council will meet tonight in a special workshop to discuss four or five possible solutions to the tangle. Members will have a week to mull the possibilities before being able to vote at the April 8 meeting.
Council members' options range from an immediate fix to a decision to do nothing and let the courts make a final decision. Some decisions may be more legally or financially sound than others.
"I want the council to have some time to … digest it," Kenneth City Vice Mayor Wanda Dudley said.
That's why she called a workshop rather than a special meeting. Council members cannot vote during workshops, but they can thrash out their thoughts.
Zemaitis, 40, won the March 10 election with 70.5 percent of the vote, or 578 votes. Incumbent Muriel Whitman, 83, received 242 votes.
But Zemaitis has been unable to take her seat because of an obscure clause in the town charter that bans public employees from serving as mayor. Zemaitis, a 10th-grade reading teacher at Dixie Hollins High School, is considered a public employee and therefore unable to serve. A judge has declared that section of the charter to be constitutional, but Zemaitis has said she will appeal the ruling.
Dudley, who is also a public school teacher, has been acting as mayor until a resolution is worked out. Dudley met last week with town attorney John Elias and Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt, whom the previous council hired to keep Zemaitis out of office. Dudley's goal was to find a way to give voters what they wanted — Zemaitis in the mayor's seat.
One choice is to do nothing and let the appeals drag out. Dudley said that's likely the most expensive considering Scarritt's $165-an-hour fee. Another is to hold a special referendum to change the charter retroactively to allow Zemaitis to serve. That, too, could be expensive, costing thousands.
Another option involves allowing Zemaitis to be "mayor pro tem" until the charter could be changed, either at a special election or during next March's regularly scheduled council election. One of the possible snags with this solution would be how much power Zemaitis would have over town employees, specifically her ability to hire and fire them.
Yet another is to use the state's home rule statute to have the council vote to reinterpret the charter clause to apply only to those public employees who work for Kenneth City.
That's the option Zemaitis favors because it's quick and costs nothing.
Dudley said she also favored that idea.
"That was one of my moves I was going to do the night of the swearing in," Dudley said. "I was told I couldn't do that."
Elias, the town attorney, said the vote could not go against the judge's ruling. But Zemaitis said the judge only said the clause was constitutional. The vote she envisions would not touch that issue. The vote would merely establish the council's interpretation of the clause.
Dudley said she's not necessarily wedded to any one of the ideas. She said she just wants to make sure that, whatever the council does, it is legally bulletproof so no one can later object to anything Zemaitis might do as mayor by saying she had no authority to take action.