Florida Keys

Bar owner Rossi can't run for Key West mayor after a flub over filing fee


The Key West mayor's race has lost a candidate.

Mark Rossi's name cannot appear on the Aug. 28 ballot, the county's top elections official said Wednesday, after a Monroe circuit judge ruled a 48-hour do-over period doesn't apply in a case where the candidate — Rossi — failed to pay a required fee by the deadline.

"It's hard for me to say no, but I've got to follow the law," said Joyce Griffin, the Monroe County supervisor of elections. "The Division of Elections told me this is not a gray area. It's clear-cut."

Rossi is out of the country. His attorneys on Wednesday said they will speak with him about whether he will appeal the judge's ruling.

No one disputes that Rossi, the former city commissioner who owns a complex of bars on Duval Street, failed to pay all of the qualifying fees on time.

The legal drama began Friday evening when Griffin announced that Rossi hadn't paid all of the qualifying fees by noon June 22. His campaign paid it later that day. But at the same time Griffin said her office had mistakenly marked him as "qualified" on her website.

Griffin on Wednesday called the mistake "a very small error."

Griffin said she spoke to Rossi the day after qualifying ended, June 23. Asked if he sounded upset about the matter, Griffin said no.

"He seemed to be understanding," she said.

County Attorney Bob Shillinger was also on the call.

"He was confident he was going to win the election," he said.

Rossi's campaign treasurer, Barry Gibson, was told Monday, June 18, that Rossi still owed a qualifying fee.

To run for the mayor of Key West, which pays $22,500 a year, a candidate must come up with $1,350 total. That total includes a 1 percent state assessment fee, $225, that Rossi didn't pay on time.

Florida does have a law that states if a check doesn't go through, a candidate has 48 hours in which to pay the fee. But that doesn't apply here, Circuit Court Judge Timothy Koenig said Wednesday.

Griffin was unclear on which law to apply — the one that gives a 48-hour period in which to fix a check that' s been returned by the bank, or the one that says qualifying fees must be paid by the end of qualifying.

The county attorney filed a lawsuit Sunday and Koenig scheduled a hearing for Monday. Griffin said she filed it on behalf of the candidates so they wouldn't have to.

A Miami Gardens case from 2016 questioned the fairness of the fee deadline rule and the Florida Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional because it "erects a barrier that is an unnecessary restraint on one's right to seek elective office."

As a result, a law now gives a candidate 48 hours after the close of qualifying to "cure a defect" with a filing fee if there is a problem with the check.

In that case, a candidate's check had been returned due to an error by the bank.