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Judge clears way to dump town mayor

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

Mayor George Jirotka knew he could not stop his fellow commissioners from wanting to impeach him. He could not prevent them from sending faxes and passing out fliers to the other 70 or so residents to rally support for their cause.

But being no fool, Jirotka insisted he would not help them do it.

When a lawyer asked why Jirotka refused commissioners' requests to call a special meeting, the mayor did not mince words:

"I will not call the meeting if the purpose is to impeach me. . . . I don't think anyone wants to be impeached."

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Richard Luce, however, ruled that the commissioners could call the meeting themselves, lifting a court order Jirotka obtained Monday to block it. High on the agenda is voting Jirotka out of office.

"I've heard some allegations that have troubled me on both sides," Luce said, rendering his decision. "Allegations of ambush, allegations that officials are serving their own purposes. . . .

"We live in a country that has the best form of government, a democratic government," Luce said.

It was the first of what promises to be a series of legal battles for this town where the average house is valued at about $690,000 and commission meetings are held at the mayor's home with guests snacking on lemonade, tea and chocolates.

By town charter it would take three-fourths of the commission, or four commissioners, to impeach Jirotka, said town attorney Les Conklin. With Commissioners William Krohn, Bob Schmidt, Jerry Prescott and Earl Slosberg against him, Jirotka could be out as soon as the men can come together and say "aye."

Jim Betts, Jirotka's attorney, argued that the commissioners tried to trick Jirotka into coming to their meeting, then surprising him with impeachment.

"Let's make him show up at a meeting without the slightest idea of what awaits him," Betts said, mocking commissioners' actions.

Prescott said commissioners have not decided when they will hold a special meeting. They would give Jirotka a chance to defend himself against their charges that he acted underhandedly leading up to an election.

How the tables have turned.

It was just two weeks ago when Jirotka held the trump card. The two-year terms of service for Krohn, Schmidt and Prescott were up. Jirotka got three women, Madge Wagner, 79, Jane Rutenberg, 49, and Carra Best, 56, to file qualifying papers for the incumbents' seats. Krohn, 76, Schmidt, 57, and Prescott, 57, did not know they had competition and failed to file their own qualifying papers, thinking they would simply be reinstated as a matter of routine. Traditionally, commissioners in Belleair Shore have not formally applied for their posts.

Jirotka announced at an October meeting that Krohn, Schmidt and Prescott would have to step aside. Their terms ended officially Tuesday.

But Prescott was granted a temporary injunction Monday that prevents Jirotka from swearing in Wagner, Rutenberg and Best until Dec. 19. By that time Jirotka could be gone.

The women say despite the controversy, they still want to be commissioners and break up what they call a board of "good ol' boys."

"We're embarrased and ashamed of what's happened to our little town," Rutenberg said. "They have their own agenda and it's got to stop."

Krohn, Slosberg and friends, including former Mayor Bob Clayton, hugged after Luce's decision.

Rutenberg left the courtroom swiftly. Jirotka, who took Clayton's place last year, said he doesn't know what awaits him. "I'm just afraid this might chill people's interest in government."

Luce had not set a date to hear arguments concerning Prescott's injunction.