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Will Kenneth City election bring change?

Teresa Zemaitis won the Kenneth City mayor’s race with 70.5 percent of the vote. Her eligibility to serve is being challenged.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Teresa Zemaitis won the Kenneth City mayor’s race with 70.5 percent of the vote. Her eligibility to serve is being challenged.

KENNETH CITY — Voters here sent an emphatic message Tuesday: Change the way town government is run.

They overwhelmingly chose a relatively young mayor to lead the charge.

But two days after the election and less than a week before Teresa Zemaitis is due to be sworn in, it's not at all clear that voters will get their way.

A court hearing to determine Zemaitis' eligibility to serve as mayor was postponed until today, and it's unlikely retired circuit Judge Horace Andrews will instantly rule on the complicated legal issues involved.

The town charter bars public employees from serving as mayor. Zemaitis is a teacher in the public school system and city officials say she is ineligible to serve.

Zemaitis says the clause is unconstitutional because it's too broad.

Until Andrews decides, Kenneth City's leadership is in limbo.

"It's frustrating," Zemaitis said.

The saga of Zemaitis' 70.5 percent landslide victory could well be the story of the changing face of a town whose much older leaders failed to understand the sands shifting around them.

Ten years ago, those who attended council meetings were generally white seniors. Though they might have battled with council members during meetings, at the end of the evening they shared coffee and doughnuts.

That was a far cry from a meeting of the city's lame duck council Wednesday night. The 40 or so people who attended were young and old. The majority were white, but black and Hispanic faces dotted the audience.

The three outgoing members were symbolic of the old guard — Mayor Muriel Whitman, 83, and council members Harold Jividen, 80, and Phil Redisch, 73.

Redisch termed out. Voters turned out Whitman and Jividen in a three-way race that saw former council member Ron Sneed, 49, and newcomer Allen Schopp, 60, swept into office.

This crowd, like the ones 10 years ago, battled with the council. But the tone was far different — and no coffee or doughnuts were served afterward.

The big issue Wednesday was the final vote of the so-called neatness ordinance, which requires all property owners in Kenneth City to keep their property — inside and out — up to certain standards. The ordinance served as a flash point for people already angry at a government that busied itself regulating things like the feeding of Muscovy ducks on private property.

Residents begged the council to table the issue for the new council.

But Jividen made a motion to pass the ordinance.

Someone cried out: "Didn't we just have an election?" Another said: "What use was the election?"

The ordinance passed unanimously. Someone cried out, "Shame on you!"

Many in the audience adjourned to the parking lot while the council meeting continued. Yelling from the parking lot penetrated the council chambers, where someone pleaded with the council to create a city Web site.

Zemaitis promised such a Web site while campaigning. But it'll take a judge to give her a chance to deliver on her promises.

What are her chances at having the charter clause declared unconstitutional?

"It's a toss up," said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Bruce Howie, who is representing Zemaitis.

If she wins, Kenneth City's leadership limbo will be over.

If Zemaitis loses, she can appeal, but an interim mayor will have to be chosen. That, said Howie, would likely be the vice mayor, whom council members will choose after being sworn in next week.

The choices: Carrier, 73, the current vice mayor; Schopp, a newcomer to the council; Sneed; or Wanda Dudley, who — of all things — is a teacher in the public school system.

The irony, Howie said, is that Dudley might be able to serve if she's "interim mayor." The charter bars mayors from being public employees.

Interim mayors aren't included in that.

Will Kenneth City election bring change? 03/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 11:30pm]
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