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4 Tarpon hopefuls to stump till end

The Sponge Dock city may decide the look of its long-term future when voters decide if political veterans or newcomers fill two commission seats.

Published March 6, 2005

TARPON SPRINGS - As the path to Tuesday's election grows shorter, four City Commission hopefuls plan to keep trekking through the city this weekend.

Come Tuesday, after weeks of campaigning, two will finish this race victorious.

Commissioner David Archie is fighting to hold on to his seat, challenged by lawyer Matt King. Local artist Robin Saenger and political veteran Frank DiDonato are duking it out for a seat about to be vacated by Commissioner Jim Archer.

The candidates raised a grand total of $31,139 in this nonpartisan municipal election, according to reports filed Friday with the city clerk. Archie, who reported $13,571 in campaign contributions, raised nearly twice as much as any other candidate.

King and Saenger, who reported $6,169 and $4,449 respectively, took many contributions from some of the Wal-Mart project's most outspoken public opponents.

DiDonato, who raised $6,950, and Archie were endorsed by the Police Benevolent Association, and each received contributions totaling $2,500 from various Florida PBAs. Commissioner Peter Nehr wrote checks to DiDonato and Archie; so did outgoing Commissioner Jim Archer and his wife, Becky. Sponge merchant George Billiris, who is married to Mayor Beverley Billiris, donated to Archie, whom the mayor has said she supports in the race.

On Thursday, the last day to accept campaign contributions, the four candidates gathered for the fifth and final candidate forum, sponsored by the North Pinellas Ministerial Alliance and Citizens Alliance For Progress, the nonprofit organization of which Archie is the executive director.

King, 29, gave the first three-minute introductory speech to the three dozen people who lined the pews of Mount Moriah AME Church in Union Academy.

"This election is a referendum on the future of Tarpon Springs," said King, who was inspired to join the race by the Wal-Mart issue. He told voters to consider whether they want to see Tarpon Springs become a victim of overdevelopment and sprawl, or preserve its historic heritage and small-town charm.

King has pledged historic preservation, support for local businesses and controlled development. He left the forum after his speech because he had a long-standing commitment to attend an induction ceremony for the Free Masons, he said.

When King's opponent, Archie, took the microphone, he took jabs at King for leaving early. The two have butted heads throughout the campaign, with King publicly railing against the Wal-Mart approval, which Archie voted for. Archie took issue with King's statement that the election marked a decision about the city's future.

"That says what we've done to this date has been bad," said Archie, 51, who was first elected in 1996.

Archie, who maintains that he made the best decision for Tarpon Springs by approving the Wal-Mart, said that if re-elected, he will work to tighten the city's zoning regulations and try to bring new vocational training to North Pinellas.

Both Archie and DiDonato, a city commissioner from 1991 to 1994 and a two-term mayor from 1998 to 2004, have touted their experience during the campaign.

But DiDonato's challenger, artist Robin Saenger, has used her political newness as an asset. She decided to enter the race when she saw that DiDonato, 57, was running unopposed. Saenger has repeatedly said she should be elected over DiDonato based on the "spirit of term limits."

"He sat out for a year, and now he's coming back in," she said in an interview. "It's the same group over and over again. . . . If a public person runs unopposed, then that gives them a tacit understanding that they can do whatever they want."

Saenger, 51, promises voters fresh ideas and a more open government. She said that while canvassing the city, residents have told her they feel disconnected from the City Commission and that it is time for new blood behind the dais.

DiDonato says that running again is a quest to complete some of the projects he started during his past terms, including creating an independent water supply, the Florida Department of Transportation's major reconstruction of Pinellas and Tarpon avenues, and the redevelopment of the Stauffer Chemical Superfund site.

This weekend, all four planned to hit the streets to get out their message, and hopefully the vote.

"Basically since Epiphany till now, time has just flown by," Saenger said.

Since early January the candidates have glided through forums and endorsement interviews. They've canvassed neighborhoods and strategized with campaign committees.

This weekend will be the last chance for that.

Saenger planned to knock on doors around the city, talking to voters and encouraging them to come out on Tuesday. DiDonato said his campaign committee would be holding signs on corners, making phone calls and sending out e-mails to remind people to vote. Likewise for King and Archie.

"I've done a lot of walking, a lot of meeting people. I've knocked on a lot of doors," King said.

Like the rest of the candidates, who pledged to campaign to the last minute, Archie noted that the job is nowhere near done.

"I've got to continue to work all the way," he said, "till the polls close at 7 o'clock."

Nora Koch can be reached at or 727 771-4304.

[Last modified March 6, 2005, 00:14:20]

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