Pasco School Board race remains unsettled as 2 candidates plan appeals

Last week’s ruling by Judge Susan Barthle left James Washington as the only remaining candidate, for now.

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | October 17, 2022

The race for Pasco County School Board District 1 isn’t over quite yet.

After a judge essentially handed the election to one candidate based on eligibility issues last week, two other candidates have made plans to appeal the ruling.

Circuit court Judge Susan Barthle formally decided the outcome Friday with a single sentence.

“The defendant Alvaro ‘Al’ Hernandez is disqualified as a candidate for member of the Pasco County School Board District 1, resulting in defendant James Washington being unopposed in the 2022 general election,” Barthle wrote in a two-page order, with a hearing transcript attached to provide her explanation.

She determined that Hernandez, who won the August primary, did not live in District 1 at the time of qualification as required by law. On Friday, the supervisor of elections office marked Hernandez’s campaign status as “did not qualify” and Washington’s as “unopposed.”

Steve Meisman, who brought the lawsuit challenging Hernandez’s eligibility, quickly filed notice that he would appeal. Not because he agreed that Hernandez belonged on the ballot, though.

Meisman, who placed third in the August primary, argued that he should be put on the ballot instead, or have votes for Hernandez count for him. His reasoning was that if Hernandez had been ruled ineligible from the start, Meisman would have won the primary.

Barthle rejected that position during her hearing on the matter.

“There’s still going to be a lot of people voting for Mr. Hernandez and you can’t just suddenly say … ‘Oh well, any vote for him … is going to go to Mr. Meisman.’ That is the clearest avenue to disenfranchisement that I can possibly see,” she said, according to the transcript.

“The voters already decided, you know, (Meisman) is … out. He’s third place. Right or wrong, I think this is the best remedy and that’s my ruling.”

Meisman’s attorney for the hearing, Charles Kelly, said Meisman would challenge only the portion of the ruling that left Washington as the lone remaining candidate.

Although Kelly indicated another lawyer will advise Meisman as the case proceeds, he said Meisman will argue to be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot as a replacement candidate.

The judge “completely went off the rails by choosing a winner and not letting the people vote,” Kelly said.

Hernandez, who is backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, issued a statement late Friday on Facebook saying he also would appeal the ruling. He defended his candidacy, and said he did not want to let down his supporters.

“I believe my conduct throughout this campaign has been moral, ethical and legal,” he wrote. “While I respect the difficult challenge that the court had in addressing my case, I owe it to myself, my family and most importantly to the citizens of Pasco County to appeal this decision.”

His lawyers have argued that Hernandez met the legal requirements to demonstrate residency in District 1 by purchasing a home and changing his homestead exemption and driver and voter registration to that home before the June qualifying deadline.

They argued that he showed intent to reside in the Zephyrhills property, even though he could not live there at the time because renovations were underway. That has been the standard in similar cases, they contended.

Judge Barthle did not accept that reasoning.

”We all know what residency is, quite frankly, it’s where you live. … And you don’t live someplace that you don’t sleep and hang out and shower and eat and cook and know your neighbors and, you know, drive to every day,” she said during the hearing. “Mr. Hernandez is free to sleep wherever he wants, particularly during an election. But he, in my humble opinion, he did not establish residence at this place.”

Hernandez said on Facebook that he expected to get an expedited hearing.

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