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    Past, future debated at Tarpon political talk

    Some of the six candidates butted heads on how well the city meets the needs of residents. Two more forums are scheduled before the March 20 election.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- In exchanges that were sometimes polite and sometimes testy, the six candidates for mayor and City Commission painted two distinctly different pictures of the commission at their first public forum Wednesday.

    One, offered by Mayor Frank DiDonato and Beverley Billiris, was of a commission that spends public money wisely and works with constituents.

    In contrast, mayoral candidate Costa Vatikiotis and, to a lesser degree, commission candidate Karen Brayboy, said commissioners neither listen nor watch city spending well enough. Candidates Joseph Pisani and Spanos Harding did not join in the criticism.

    DiDonato and Billiris said the commission has been responsive to residents, has given the residents tax reductions and has worked to complete several big projects in the past few years.

    "Our city is strong," DiDonato told several dozen people at the Woods of Anderson Park clubhouse. "We have an increased service level to our citizens . . . and we have little to no debt."

    Billiris, who is running against hair salon owner Pisani, said there were many projects that needed to be completed when she was elected to the commission three years ago. She said the current commission has been able to complete or advance most of those projects while keeping a balanced budget.

    She also said the current commissioners get along with each other better than some earlier commissions in Tarpon Springs, where the political scene was contentious in previous years.

    "My tenure on this commission has been a positive one," she said.

    Vatikiotis, the former city manager in Tarpon Springs, criticized the current commission. He said elected officials have not been responsive enough to residents, and he said the commission has not spent the city's money wisely.

    "This commission has had its back to the community," he said.

    Other than the disagreements between Vatikiotis and DiDonato, the candidates for the other two seats did not criticize their opponents.

    Brayboy was a commissioner until she left office in 1999 because of term limits. On Wednesday, she said her career as the owner of an investment and employee benefits firm, as well as her previous terms in the commission, would give her a strong foundation for another term in office.

    "My focus has been more on your money, because it is your money that we manage," she said. "I will be as responsive to you as I was in the past. I may not always agree with you, but I will come out and listen to you."

    Harding, a propane salesman who is running against Brayboy, previously ran for mayor in 1998. He said the commission should focus on getting input from residents and keeping residents informed, and he suggested putting information about the city in monthly water bills.

    "The residents need to know what's going on in their town," he said.

    Pisani, a first-time candidate, called the other candidates "great people" and said he would like to make small improvements to the city. He said his "beginner's mind" would be an asset to the commission.

    "I think too many experts in one spot don't make the right decisions," he said. "There is no need to have deep understanding of all issues."

    Although the forum was not set up as a debate, there were some sharp disagreements between Vatikiotis and DiDonato. Vatikiotis criticized the downtown redevelopment plan and what he said was a focus on tourists over residents. He also said the city isn't managing money well and that the mayor isn't visible enough in the community.

    "A mayor should be out in the community," he said. "A mayor must also be responsive to residents in a timely manor."

    DiDonato said he and other commissioners have worked hard to answer to residents' needs. He said the city must be doing something right with its management of money, because in 1999 commissioners gave residents the first property tax rate cut in 17 years.

    "I'm a little frustrated sitting here, because there are things that are being said that are not true," DiDonato said.

    One resident at the forum asked about cost overruns with the public safety building, which is under construction, and with improvements at the Sponge Docks. Billiris said both projects have been expensive, but that the current commission has been hindered by decisions the previous commission made about the projects.

    "If we had control over this from the beginning," she said, "I can guarantee it would have come in at a much lower cost."

    After the forum, Brayboy took issue with Billiris' comments. When Brayboy was on the commission in the past, she said, most of the plans were in the early stages. She said she did not want to take the blame for mistakes she did not make.

    "It's extremely frustrating because we didn't even have any engineering plans when I left office," Brayboy said. "It just isn't accurate that those cost overruns were our responsibility."

    Several residents talked about the traffic problem on U.S. 19 in front of their subdivision. Some said they would like a traffic light at the entryway because of congestion and the risk of accidents.

    DiDonato said he thinks a traffic light would be a good addition at the intersection and he has spoken to Florida Department of Transportation officials about it. But he pointed out that the state is reluctant to install a new light too close to other traffic lights and that it works on a three-year budget, so it would be difficult to add a new project in the next few years.

    "It's not a city decision," he said. Still, he said, "I will keep pushing them toward taking care of that."

    Vatikiotis said the best way to get a new traffic light is to ask the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

    "It's the commission's responsibility" to go to the MPO, he said.

    Candidate forums open to the public are scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Stonehedge Mobile Home Park clubhouse, and 7 p.m. March 5 at the Community Center on Walton Avenue. The city elections are on March 20.

    - Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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