KENNETH CITY — Teresa Zemaitis has picked up a powerful ally in her quest to have the town charter changed so she can peacefully take office if she is elected mayor.
State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, wrote council members a letter asking them to put a charter amendment on the ballot to eliminate any bar to Zemaitis' service as mayor. The charter prohibits public employees from serving as mayor. Town attorney Paul Marino has interpreted that as barring Zemaitis, a reading teacher at Dixie Hollins High School, from being mayor.
"In light of the recent situation surrounding Ms. Teresa Zemaitis's candidacy, and to prevent any similar situations in the future, I strongly encourage you to place a charter amendment on the ballot which clarifies this issue, letting the smart people of Kenneth City settle this matter," Kriseman wrote.
Kriseman added, "At a $6,000 annual salary, it is unreasonable to exclude from elected office those who work in the public sector for their primary occupation.
"Ms. Zemaitis should continue with her campaign and be seated as mayor if she is both awarded the most votes and the archaic and perhaps unconstitutional charter provision is rejected."
Town Clerk Nancy Beelman certified Zemaitis in December as an eligible candidate to run against incumbent Muriel Whitman. But last week, Beelman told her that an assistant had spotted the clause and had asked Marino for his interpretation. She handed Zemaitis a letter that gave her a choice: "tender your resignation as a public employee with the School Board without delay and … provide this office with a copy of your written resignation, or … provide … your notice of withdrawal of your candidacy."
Zemaitis chose to do neither, saying the clause applies to mayors, not candidates. The issue would not arise, she said, unless she is elected. Although it is unclear that the clause is valid, Zemaitis and her supporters began a grass roots campaign to have the council put a charter amendment on the March 10 ballot that would remove the questionable phrase. The people's request is expected to come up at tonight's meeting.
The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections is holding the ballot until Thursday morning in case the council votes to put the proposed charter change before the voters.
Much of the furor concerning the election has centered on Zemaitis' candidacy, but it is far from the only complaint Kenneth City residents have. Others charge that the town's power structure has tried to tilt the race in favor of incumbents.
Jayne Hester, who was considering running for a Town Council seat, said she went to Town Hall on the opening day of qualifying to pick up an election packet only to find that Whitman had been given her packet two days before. Council member Harold Jividen had been given his the day before qualifying was due to open.
Beelman said she decided to hand out the packets early because she received all the information from the state earlier than she expected. To make sure she let people know, Beelman said, she posted a typed notice on bulletin boards at Town Hall, the old fire station, the Winn-Dixie and Sweetbay.
But Hester said she shops at Winn-Dixie and never saw the notice. And, she said, the notice is not in the usual format the town uses, which includes a list of where the notices are posted.
"There's definitely a lot of trash going on, and it isn't for the good of the city," Hester said.
Zemaitis said Beelman quizzed her when she went to pick up her packet.
"When I picked up my packet, Nancy asked me, 'Will you have time for all the responsibilities of mayor with your new teaching job?' " Zemaitis said. "I told her I would not apply for a position I did not believe I was fully capable of."
Zemaitis said she felt like Beelman was trying to dissuade her from running.