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Injunction adds to beach town chaos

The town has just 71 residents, but chaos has spread beyond its narrow boundaries and into lawyers' offices and the county court system.

The questions being raised, however, sound more like bad jokes than the basis for legal arguments.

Can we boot the mayor out of office?

Who's running the place?

Some say they really don't know. And it may take months of court injunctions, hearings and scrutinizing city law before they find out.

"I just feel we need a new headship," said Betty Cook, a resident for 12 years.

That "headship" would be Mayor George Jirotka, Cook said. She and her husband, David, believe he should step down from office. They were among about 15 people who came Monday to what was expected to be a meeting where commissioners would discuss whether to vote Jirotka out of office.

Minutes before the meeting was to begin, however, a lawyer showed up with some news. There would be no such forum, he told them. Jirotka had been granted a temporary injunction prohibiting the meeting. The injunction was signed by Circuit Judge George Greer and is in effect until 10:15 a.m. today, when the issue will be heard by Circuit Judge Richard Luce.

The mess started about two weeks ago when Jirotka informed others on the five-member Board of Commissioners that there would be three new commissioners on board soon. It appeared three of the current commissioners, William Krohn, 76, Jerry Prescott, 57, and Bob Schmidt, 57, would have to step aside.

Krohn, Prescott and Schmidt had failed to file qualifying papers for re-election to their terms. That's not an oversight for Belleair Shore, however, because commissioners traditionally don't bother with such paperwork. When there is a vacancy, they ask a neighbor to fill it or an incumbent decides to serve another unpaid term.

It has worked that way for at least 20 years. Until now.

This year, Jirotka got three women to file qualifying papers for the incumbents' seats, unbeknown to the incumbents.

So, because Madge Wagner, 79, Jane Rutenberg, 49, and Carra Best, 56, had filed papers and the incumbents had not, Jirotka says, the incumbents are out. He said last week that he planned to swear in Wagner, Rutenberg and Best today or Wednesday.

But Prescott and the other commissioners aren't going down without a fight. They say Jirotka should have told them others were applying for their jobs.

Enter the lawyers.

Prescott hired St. Petersburg lawyer Brian Battaglia. Monday, just as Jirotka, a lawyer himself, was granted an injunction to stop the meeting, Battaglia was getting a temporary injunction from Circuit Judge David Walker prohibiting Jirotka from swearing in Wagner, Rutenberg and Best.

Prescott says the commission has the power to vote Jirotka out of office.

That's uncommon, said Jane Hayman, deputy general counsel for the Florida League of Cities. More common, Hayman said, would be a "recall" vote in which the residents have the chance to decide if the mayor should be thrown out of office.

Jirotka was named mayor in May 1996 when Bob Clayton resigned. Clayton was facing battery and criminal mischief charges after demanding two beachgoers leave one of the town's private beach easements.

So, now some want Jirotka to step down, and others wonder whether three-fifths of the commission will soon lose their jobs.

Who's in charge of the town? Battaglia says he supposes that would be the remaining commissioner, Earl Slosberg, who has one year remaining in his term.

Slosberg, who came Monday to the meeting that was never held, said he was unsure who's in power.