Viewers who tuned in to cable Channel 12 at 7 p.m. Tuesday to see the Hernando Chamber of Commerce candidate forum were greeted by a black screen bearing the station's logo. The broadcast was delayed for several minutes, it turned out, because County Commission candidate Tony Mosca Jr. was nowhere to be found.
It was a fitting opening for the off-again, on-again forum that was born in controversy.
Mosca, however, was not protesting by refusing to show up, as some other candidates were. He was smoking a cigarette in the parking lot and didn't know it was time to go on.
Soon, the Spring Hill Republican was seated next to his Democratic opponent, Verne Smith, and the forum was off and running _ but without County Commission candidate Virginia Brown-Waite, a Republican, and School Board candidates Susan Cooper and Diane Rowden, both Democrats.
The trio avoided the forum because they said they feared it could be skewed against them.
For instance, the moderator, Coastal Engineering Associates president Cliff Manuel Jr., was a financial backer of Rowden's Republican opponent, Beth Sanczel. But Manuel was no more complimentary to Sanczel than to any of the other candidates.
The protests originally led Chamber organizers to cancel the forum, but later they decided to go on with the show.
Chamber executive vice president Doug Hafely said the business group needed its own televised forum because the news reporters used as panelists in the Hernando School Board-sponsored debates were biased, according to Carl Johnson, producer of the debates. Hafely denied the allegation.
Because Brown-Waite did not attend, she was not able to answer the criticism from her Democratic opponent for the District 2 commission seat, Hannah "Nancy" Robinson.
While on camera, Robinson stressed the need for honest and ethical commissioners. During a break in the broadcast, Robinson blasted Brown-Waite for being fined earlier this year for a civil violation of the state's Sunshine Law.
"It's something my opponent has to deal with," Robinson said. "I hope the community looks at that when they make their decision for county commissioner."
Brown-Waite, a member of the county's Planning and Zoning Commission, and two other planning commissioners were fined $25 each in February after they met in secret to discuss the regulation of hazardous-waste disposal.
Brown-Waite said Wednesday she was "kind of disappointed" in Robinson for making the violation a campaign issue. "I think it's a sign of a desperate candidate, and she's been a lady so far," Brown-Waite said.
The precautions taken by Chamber officials sensitive to charges that they would help their favorite candidates by supplying them with the questions in advance gave the forum the air of a game show.
Candidates chose their questions by picking numbers at random. State Senate District 4 candidate Tom Hogan Jr. chose Question 7, then answered the query on how to attract industry to Florida. Then it came time for him to choose his second question.
"I can't ask for 7 again, huh?" Hogan asked.
"Good try," replied the panelist.