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Teresa Zemaitis battle cost Kenneth City nearly $50,000

KENNETH CITY — Taxpayers ponied up almost $50,000 to pay for the effort to keep Teresa Zemaitis from being seated as mayor.

A tally of the final bills in for the five-month saga saw Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt getting the bulk of the money — $39,985.84 for legal work performed over three months. The Kenneth City Town Council, headed by then-Mayor Muriel Whitman, hired Scarritt specifically to sue Zemaitis to keep her out of office.

Former town attorney Paul Marino received at least $3,594.78 for legal work he specifically attributed to the Zemaitis case in four bills he submitted to the town in January, February and March. John Elias received at least $4,300 directly attributed to the Zemaitis case during his first two months as Kenneth City town attorney.

The total — $47,880.62 — far exceeds the $16,500 total the town had budgeted for attorney fees for the 2008-09 fiscal year. Of that amount, $15,000 was set aside for the normal retainer, and $1,500 was for "extraordinary" legal expenses. Scarritt's bills would come under that heading and are 26.7 times the amount set aside for extraordinary legal expenses.

Put another way, the total amount accounts for about 2.2 percent of Kenneth City's $2,225,943 operating budget for the entire year.

"It's another unfortunate situation," Zemaitis said Thursday of the amount of fees. "All I can say right now is it's over. I don't know there's anything we can do about it. It's time to move on."

Zemaitis said she hoped the town would be able to do better in the future.

Zemaitis qualified as a mayoral candidate in December. A month later, when it was too late for anyone else to step in, Town Clerk Nancy Beelman disqualified her under a then-obscure section of the town charter that bans any public employee from serving as mayor. Zemaitis, who was represented for free by the American Civil Liberties Union, decided to stick out the race.

When she beat Whitman by a landslide 70.5 percent of the vote, the Town Council sued her to keep her out of office. A judge ruled that the clause was constitutional, and Zemaitis appealed. But after weeks of negotiations, Zemaitis was sworn in as mayor pro tem until next March's election, when voters will have a chance to retroactively change the charter to allow public employees to serve as mayor.

If the charter is not changed, Zemaitis can continue with her appeal.

But now the town has been left to pay the bills for the battle.

Among the charges on the bills are a $210 reimbursement to Scarritt for filing the action and serving Zemaitis. Also on the bills are reimbursements for copies, faxes and mileage for Scarritt to travel from Tampa to the courthouse in St. Petersburg, to Kenneth City and to Dunedin to meet with Elias.

Marino charged the town for mileage and time to attend the two court hearings that Scarritt tried. He also wanted to be reimbursed $4.50 for parking fees while at the hearings.

Fast facts

What they got

Three attorneys sent

Kenneth City bills totaling

at least* $47,880.62 for costs and services related to the battle over Mayor Pro Tem Teresa Zemaitis' qualifications to serve as mayor. Here's

how each made out.

Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt

got $39,985.84 in fees and

costs over

three months.

Former Kenneth City town attorney Paul Marino got at least $3,594.78 in fees and costs over four months.*

Current

town attorney John Elias got

at least $4,300

in fees.*

*Some hourly charges included several items so that it could not be determined how much of those were devoted to the fight over Zemaitis. The Times left out all those aggregate charges so as not to overestimate the amount taxpayers were billed.

Teresa Zemaitis battle cost Kenneth City nearly $50,000 05/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 4:30am]
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