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Race called but seat still empty

Last-minute legal maneuvering late Friday afternoon left lawyers winded and annoyed and Hernando County no closer to knowing who will serve as the District 2 county commissioner - or when.

It began Friday morning with a judge's order halting plans to declare a winner in the disputed race. It ended Friday evening with lawyers racing through the courthouse, a perennial government gadfly in tow, and a process server lying in wait for Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams.

In the midst of this legal wrangling, the county Canvassing Board, which tallies the votes, called the race for Rose Rocco at 4:50 p.m. and faxed the now-official results to the state. Rocco beat four-term Commissioner Hannah "Nancy" Robinson by 1,444 votes.

But that doesn't mean Rocco will take the oath of office as scheduled Tuesday or take a commission seat that she tried three times to win.

Robinson, a Republican, filed a lawsuit Tuesday to keep the seat she held for 14 years, claiming Rocco, a Democrat, isn't qualified to take office because she didn't live in Spring Hill District 2 on Election Day. Rocco's counter-argument says "election" means the date the vote is made official - in this case, Friday.

Rocco owns a house a block from district lines. She and her husband moved into the district this week. Robinson doesn't dispute the vote totals.

When the sun came up Friday morning, here's where things stood: The county Canvassing Board was scheduled to certify the election at 4 p.m. Swear-in ceremonies were slated for Tuesday.

Robinson's attorney had asked on Thursday for an immediate hearing.

On Friday morning, 5th Circuit Judge John Booth issued an injunction. He ordered the Canvassing Board to withhold certification and the swear-in postponed until after a hearing.

Shortly before 4 p.m., Williams said the Canvassing Board would comply with the judge's order, and every race except District 2 would be certified as required by law.

That changed quickly after the three-member board convened.

The members met in a windowed room, their voices piped out to a lobby where lawyers and observers waited on what is typically a brief and dull administrative hearing.

The board includes Williams, Commissioner Chris Kingsley and Judge Don Scaglione, its chairman.

The board could go ahead and follow the order, Senior Assistant County Attorney Kent Weissinger said. Or it could appeal. An appeal by a government body constitutes an immediate stay of the order, meaning the Canvassing Board could certify all the races.

Kingsley, a Democrat, moved to appeal. After a brief discussion, Williams, also a Democrat, seconded the motion. The board voted 2-1 to appeal the judge's order.

At the vote, a waiting county attorney dashed off to file the appeal. The board temporarily adjourned. Robinson's attorney, Robert Morris Jr., said the board "thumbed its nose at the judge's order" and headed off to add Williams to the lawsuit.

The Canvassing Board reconvened 10 minutes later and called the race in Rocco's favor. During that meeting, Morris tapped on the glass and asked Williams to come outside, where a process server waited and a weary Williams was served.

Morris accused the board of partisanship. Williams said the board simply certified the vote count - it doesn't affect the outcome of the case.

Adding to the confusion, lawyer Joe Mason, whose creative and occasionally long-winded arguments have gained him substantial local notoriety, moved to join the case. His client: Janey Baldwin, government fixture, civic activist, staunch Republican and occasional County Commission candidate.

Baldwin agreed with Robinson and asked for an injunction of her own to keep Rocco from taking office.

"Janey just wants to participate and make sure no stone gets left unturned," Mason said.

Still, when the sun set, none of the lawyers involved knew who would ultimately get the County Commission seat or when there will be a hearing on the case.

Robinson's suit relies on a 1988 Florida Supreme Court case. The court interpreted the Constitution "as requiring residency at the time of election" for county commissioners.

Other elected positions, like sheriff and supervisor of elections, require residency upon taking office, according to the Florida Division of Elections. Robinson's case argues that "election" means Election Day, in this case Nov. 7.

Rocco's attorney, Jason Melton, argued that "election" is when the vote is made official. County Attorney Garth Coller told Rocco on Nov. 8 that, to be on the safe side, she should move to the district before the vote is certified.

"I want to start doing the job I was elected to do," Rocco said Friday.

This was Rocco's third try at a County Commission seat, her second race against Robinson. Rocco lost to Robinson, then a Democrat, in 2002, garnering 47.6 percent of the vote to Robinson's 52.4 percent.

Rocco has long claimed that Robinson perceived her as an electoral threat and intentionally drew her out of District 2 in 2003. In 2004, Rocco ran again, this time in her new District 1. She lost a six-way GOP primary for the seat now held by Commissioner Jeff Stabins.

Robinson joined the GOP in 2004. Rocco switched to the Democrats in March and declared a second bid against Robinson.

The judge's order barring Rocco from taking the oath of office remains in place, and for now that ceremony is indefinitely postponed.

Mason filed for an immediate hearing Friday afternoon. He wants the judge to order the official results for District 2 recalled and revised. The lawyers will meet again at 10:30 a.m. today at the only place they could get a judge: the Citrus County jail.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at (352) 754-6127 or aloder@sptimes.com.

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