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Judge, attorneys await result of Kenneth City's mayoral race

KENNETH CITY — This may be a small town, but folks here can create some big uproars. So predictions that Tuesday's election — with a majority of the council up for grabs — would be quarrelsome seemed right on the mark.

But those predictions badly underestimated the sometimes surreal quality of the mayor's race, in which a judge and teams of attorneys wait in the wings in case challenger Teresa Zemaitis is successful in her bid to unseat incumbent Muriel Whitman.

The race has also completely overshadowed the council contests that pit three candidates for two open seats: Incumbent Harold Jividen wants to be re-elected. Ron Sneed, who served on the council from 1998 to 2001, wants to return. And political newcomer Allen Schopp wants a chance to serve his community. The two top vote-getters will go into office.

But most eyes are turned to the Zemaitis-Whitman race.

Zemaitis teaches 10th-grade reading at Dixie Hollins High School and, according to officials' interpretation of the charter, that makes her ineligible to serve as mayor because an obscure clause bans all public employees of any kind who work anywhere from serving as Kenneth City mayor unless they quit their job. That's something Zemaitis can't do — the $6,000 annual mayor's salary doesn't replace a teacher's pay.

Zemaitis has said she would have withdrawn from the race had the problem been discovered during the qualifying time in December. It was not discovered until January, long after someone else could have challenged Whitman.

Even before that happened, the town was already seething over proposals to ban the feeding of ducks on private property and a neatness ordinance that gave police the right to enter homes, or seek a search warrant, if they thought there was a violation inside. The news that the "reform" candidate — Zemaitis — was being told she had to leave the race increased the uproar and prompted angry confrontations at council meetings.

Zemaitis refused to leave the race, saying the charter clearly applied to mayors and not to candidates. For its part, the town asked a judge for an injunction preventing Zemaitis from being sworn in if she wins, at least until the courts could decide if she is qualified to serve.

But Friday, a judge turned down the town's request for an injunction during an impromptu telephone hearing. The judge, a retired circuit jurist, set a hearing for 1 p.m. Wednesday, if Zemaitis wins.

But her win would open a Pandora's box of "what ifs." What if the judge rules her ineligible? Who becomes mayor? What if the losing side appeals after Wednesday's hearing? Who runs the town then? And on and on. What if? What if?

"Those are questions we haven't answered yet. … Our research tends to support the position that the vice mayor would become mayor but we haven't finished because they're asking us to focus on the issue at hand," said Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt, who is representing Kenneth City in the Zemaitis case.

"It's actually a very interesting issue."

fast facts

What if … ?

Tuesday's election could open up a world of possibilities for Kenneth City town government because of the legal cloud hanging over challenger Teresa Zemaitis, who has been ruled as ineligible to serve as mayor because, as a public school teacher, she's a public employee. The charter bans any public employee of any kind from serving as mayor. One scenario is clear. The rest are murky.

If Muriel Whitman is re-elected, she will be sworn in March 18.

If Zemaitis is elected, she'll be in court at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

If the town wins the court hearing and Zemaitis is disqualified, it's unclear who would become mayor. But it would likely be the vice mayor.

Of course, Zemaitis could appeal. If she wins the appeal, she would become mayor. If she loses, that ends the issue.

If Zemaitis wins the court hearing, she would be sworn in unless the town appeals. If that happens, a judge would have to decide whether Zemaitis would be mayor during the appeals process. And, of course, the losing side could appeal that ruling.

Judge, attorneys await result of Kenneth City's mayoral race 03/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 12, 2009 8:47am]
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