A small but significant choice
Tarpon Springs will vote in only two races, but could end up with a very different City Hall.
By ROBIN STEIN
Published March 11, 2007
TARPON SPRINGS - Tuesday's twin elections of city officials won't bring sweeping changes to the city's policies or agenda, but the outcome could radically alter the Board of Commissioners' dynamic.
Seeking re-election are the board's two most vocal and polarizing figures - Mayor Beverley Billiris, 59, and City Commissioner Peter Dalacos, 52. For the past three years, meetings have straddled a tense balance between Billiris' polite protocol and Dalacos drumbeat of scrutiny.
Now, both incumbents are facing challenges from political newcomers. The mayoral contest pits Billiris' polish and experience against the scrappy discontent of a local retiree, Harry J. Andropoulos, 51. Dalacos' opponent is David C. Bolton, 38, an ordained minister, ophthalmic technician and full-time student.
All four candidates agree on the major issues facing the 23,000 people of this historic city: old water and sewer pipes, congested streets and a downtown overdue for a touch-up. What's more, Tarpon Springs' economy is changing, the Sponge Docks are stuck in a rut, and a slew of condos and superstores are popping up at a disconcerting pace.
However, each of the two races is a contest between dueling visions of leadership. And they offer differing views on whether the city could have blocked the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, from building in Tarpon Springs.
Billiris is a consummate politician with eight years of experience on the City Commission, including three at the helm. A member of one of Tarpon's founding families, Billiris is a visible leader, always darting around town in a knit suit with a American flag pinned to her lapel. Once an elementary school teacher, she is now a tireless advocate for the city and a spectrum of charitable issues, buzzing from her Sponge Docks business to government events and nonprofit meetings.
"There is not an event I've missed, not a day my door has not been open, I have never not called back," she said.
Throughout Billiris' tenure, city business and public meetings are conducted with a certain protocol and light-hearted formality. Commissioners are expected to address details and concerns with city staff privately. Polite questioning is fine, but chastising or probing staff members in public is a no-no. Tough talk is reserved for disputes with Pinellas County or state agencies.
The formality in City Hall is precisely what Andropoulos says prompted him to run for mayor.
Things in City Hall have become too impersonal, Andropoulos said.
"I like the small-town atmosphere, having access to government," he said.
Andropoulos, who said he occasionally works as a residential contractor and legal advisor in California, moved to Tarpon Springs about 20 years ago. The back yard of his home on Bayshore Drive borders the mayor's property.
He said many residents share his frustration with the chilly tone.
"They go down to City Hall and they get the runaround. They don't really get their problems solved," he said.
Andropoulos also charges that major infrastructure projects are taking too long, particularly the citywide sewer network.
"I don't think we're budgeting enough," he said. "It needs to get done a lot faster."
Andropoulos also contends Billiris and some commission members let litigation threats dictate decision making, such as when they approved Wal-Mart's plan to come to town.
Embracing his outsider status, Andropoulos promised the crowd at a recent candidate forum that he would work to restore Tarpon's small-town feel.
"Let's let people who live here see that the city is not just a machine," he said. "I think you'll find that the city will be a different place if I'm elected mayor."
Meanwhile, a similar dynamic of insider-versus-establishment pervades the race for Seat 3 - but the roles are reversed.
To Dalacos, dissent is vital to governance. The incumbent manages his wife's spa business and cares for their daughter, but said he dedicates the bulk of his time to the city.
He comes to meetings armed with research and poses exacting questions about everything from missing commas to violations of the city charter. He rejected staff advice and voted against Wal-Mart.
His actions haven't won Dalacos favor among city staff or support from fellow commissioners, who consider his questioning tedious and disrespectful.
Dalacos said he knows others believe he is too brash, but he thinks commissioners are elected to ask questions and provide oversight - not have a Kum Ba Yah fest.
But he is described as a rogue commissioner by his challenger, David C. Bolton.
Bolton says Dalacos' style generates problems rather than solutions and alienates coalition partners - such as the Chamber of Commerce - and city staff.
A longtime city resident, Bolton said his six years as a youth minister at First United Methodist Church equipped him with the experience and skills to "work as a team player."
Bolton said he'll help the city address pressing issues- such as redevelopment and recreation programs.
"I have fresh ideas," he said. "I'd like to present them in a way to get support behind them."
Currently an ophthalmic technician and college student, Bolton has spent time familiarizing himself with city business in recent months and built a solid base of support. But some residents are troubled by unresolved questions surrounding his past.
In 1989, Bolton was charged with grand theft for using a stolen credit card to fund a shopping spree at Countryside Mall.
Asked about the incident, Bolton told the St. Petersburg Times that he was 20 years old and going through a difficult time. He said he did not object when his friend took a credit card from the Palm Harbor home she had been hired to watch and charge things over the next two or three days.
"I went along with it," he said. Bolton pleaded no contest and received probation, which was extended in 1992 because he left the area without permission.
But court and police records indicate it was Bolton, not his friend, who stole the card and forged the cardholder's signature at several stores in the mall. The police records note that Bolton's friend was unaware the card had been taken, and she cooperated fully with the investigation.
Bolton said he is a very different person today and the Times unfairly focused on a "mistake" he made 18 years ago and never tried to hide.
"We need people who are going to work for the community and not going to bog everything down with nasty personal attacks," he said. "We need some synergy to get things done."
BEVERLEY GRAHAM BILLIRIS, 59, was born in Canada and has lived in Tarpon Springs for about 25 years. She co-owns a wholesale business and retail shop at the Sponge Docks and two tour companies. Prior to becoming mayor in 2004, Billiris was elected to the City Commission in 1998 and 2001. She earned a bachelor's degree in education from the University of South Florida and a master's degree in computer science from Nova University. She used to teach elementary school.
She serves on multiple committees and executive boards affiliated with the League of Cities and the Tampa Bay Region and is a member of many civic organizations. She lives with her husband, George, and her mother.
Tarpon Springs election
ASSETS: Retail and wholesale business and tour companies
INCOME: Business revenue, stocks and mutual funds
HARRY JAMES ANDROPOULOS, 51, was born in Wisconsin and moved to Tarpon Springs 21 years ago. A licensed real estate agent and residential contractor, Andropoulos attended Arizona State University and earned a law degree from University of Southern California. A member of the California Bar, he specialized in criminal defense until he retired. He is a member of the board of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and is a licensed soccer referee. His wife DeRose teaches elementary school and they live with their three sons, ages 18, 22, and 24.
ASSETS: Home and rental properties.
LIABILITIES: Mortgage and credit cards.
INCOME: Rental income, stocks and construction company.
PETER S. DALACOS, 52, is a stay-at-home dad, a real estate agent and manager of his wife's day-spa business. He was elected to the commission in his first run for political office in 2004. A Tarpon Springs native who graduated with a degree in biology from Tulane University, he moved to California after graduating. He studied investing and broadcast production at Santa Monica College and held several jobs. He also worked as a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller in South Florida. He and his wife, Devorah, have two grown daughters and one daughter in elementary school.
INCOME: Real estate sales business, city commissioner salary.
DAVID CLIFFORD BOLTON, 38, was born in Tampa and has lived in Tarpon Springs since 1975. Last year, he stepped down from his position as youth minister at First United Methodist Church after six years to finish his bachelor's degree at Southeastern University. He also is a part-time ophthalmic assistant. This is his first run for elected office. Bolton serves on the Tarpon Springs High School advisory committee and on the Pinellas County Juvenile Arbitration committee. He lives with his wife, Grace.
INCOME: Researcher salary
Candidates for mayor
Candidates for Seat 3