KENNETH CITY — State election officials say this town's charter allows Teresa Zemaitis to run for mayor.
Town officials gave Zemaitis the choice Thursday of leaving the mayor's race or quitting her job teaching reading to 10th-graders at Dixie Hollins High School. The Kenneth City charter bans public employees from serving as mayor. Town officials said, as a public school teacher, Zemaitis is ineligible to serve.
But Zemaitis refused Friday to step out of the race and vowed to fight any attempt to oust her. Zemaitis said she is a candidate, not the mayor. The issue will not arise unless she is elected.
"I am not dropping out. I am continuing," Zemaitis said Friday.
Officials from the Florida Department of State, which oversees elections, said they had been asked to look at Kenneth City's charter. Zemaitis is right, they said.
"They can be an employee and run. It's just that when they get elected, they have to resign," department spokeswoman Jennifer Krell Davis said Friday afternoon.
St. Petersburg attorney Charles R. Gallagher III, who is representing Zemaitis, said he had advised his client to stay in the race.
"The mayor must be (chosen) by the vote of the public," Gallagher said.
If Zemaitis is elected, he said, the matter can be put before a judge who can decide whether the clause is valid and whether it applies to schoolteachers.
Nancy Beelman, the Kenneth City town clerk, said she is unsure whether officials will allow Zemaitis to remain in the race or try to remove her.
If she is removed, Mayor Muriel Whitman would have no opponent and would be re-elected without any votes being cast.
"I don't know at this point," Beelman said. "At this point, it's been turned back to the attorney, and the elections office is in on it."
But the Pinellas County supervisor of elections denied having any involvement in the issue.
That office contracts with the town to provide the machines and other paraphernalia for the election but has no control over who runs or how the town responds to such challenges.
"Our only role is as a facilitator. That's our role. We have zero responsibility," said Julie Marcus, deputy supervisor of elections. "Our office in no way, shape or form validates anything. The municipality does."
If some have their way, Zemaitis will never have to face the issue even if elected. She has asked her supporters to lobby council members to put a charter change on the ballot. The change would eliminate the "confusing language." If passed, it would take effect immediately while Zemaitis would not be sworn in until later. That would mean that, once she was sworn in, the charter would no longer ban her from serving.
Her supporters were busy Friday urging people to come to Wednesday's council meeting to press the issue. A large showing, said Jayne Hester, would improve the chances of the council's voting in favor of placing a charter revision on the ballot.
The race for mayor was already expected to be a hot one pitting a younger, progressive candidate full of ideas against an incumbent member of the old guard that has run Kenneth City politics for years.
As the news spread of Zemaitis' predicament, many blamed the entrenched power brokers and accused them of unfair dealings that threatened to rob voters of the right to choose their leader.
The situation, they said, echoed the aftermath of the 2002 Kenneth City election when Ted Wiesner was elected to the council.
Wiesner, an active-duty member of the Coast Guard, received permission from his commanding officer before running.
But after his victory, Beelman and then-Mayor Bill Smith called the Coast Guard several times questioning whether it was legal for Wiesner to serve.
The calls prompted the Coast Guard to tell Wiesner he should resign from either his job or his council seat.
Wiesner left the council a month after the election.
"The council has always been nothing more than the next step after the homeowners' board," said Russ Koerner, a longtime resident. "It's just like graduation day. You're out of high school, except there's no test. It's a game. … I think this was done intentionally."
Former Mayor Harold Paxton said, "To wait until this late date is bad. … It keeps the voters from being able to exercise the right to vote. … There's got to be some law that's been broken here. I don't know what that is, but it's not right."
Paxton said he thought the town's tactic would backfire in the long run.
"This has probably done more for her election than anything else," Paxton said.
Former council member Ron Sneed, who is running for the council in the upcoming election, said he was "surprised … but not surprised" when he heard the news.
"I think that they do what they want to keep who in there that they want," Sneed said.
Sneed questioned Beelman's role in the mess.
"She should have known," Sneed said of the town clerk. "Her being in charge of the election, she should have known all the rules."
Koerner agreed, saying Beelman has worked for the town for 26 years, many of those as clerk.
"I find it very hard to believe she was not aware of this after 26 years," Koerner said. "It's extremely unfair to her (Zemaitis), and it looks extremely suspicious, as if this was done intentionally. I can't say for sure, but if it looks like a skunk and smells like a skunk, it probably is a skunk."
Beelman defended her actions, saying it was a simple error that slipped by.
It was discovered by accident when one of her assistants read the charter and brought it to Beelman's attention.
Beelman asked town attorney Paul Marino for his opinion. When Marino said that the charter should be interpreted as barring public schoolteachers from serving, she acted.
But Beelman also blamed Zemaitis.
"It bypassed her and I both. She's being held responsible too because she was on the council for six years," Beelman said. "I've never had this come up before, so it just bypassed me. We've had on council schoolteachers, but it just passed me on that."