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    Election signs provoke fairness debate

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- In a town blanketed with brightly colored campaign signs, a mayoral candidate is arguing that two red placards cause a conflict for two city commissioners.

    That candidate's comments about the signs have, in turn, gotten under the skin of the commissioners.

    Costa Vatikiotis wrote a letter last week asking that City Commissioners Cindy Domino and Jim Archer be removed from the canvassing board that oversees city elections because they have signs in their yards supporting Vatikiotis' opponent, Mayor Frank DiDonato.

    Vatikiotis said he is concerned that Domino and Archer could affect the outcome of the election, he said in an interview. Canvassing board members certify the election results, decide whether questionable absentee ballots should be counted and participate if a hand recount is granted.

    "I could see a situation . . . where things are open to interpretation," he said. "It's only human nature to side with the person you support."

    In his letter to City Attorney John Hubbard, Vatikiotis wrote: "I respectfully request that you encourage the City Commission to appoint canvassing members who are impartial and fair to the extent feasible."

    All city commissioners automatically are on the canvassing board. If individual commissioners are up for re-election, the city can appoint other people to replace them. The city's charter does not allow active campaigning by members appointed to fill vacancies on the canvassing board, Hubbard said.

    The prohibition on active campaigning only applies to those replacement members, not to city commissioners, Hubbard said.

    That means Domino and Archer can keep their signs in their yards without leaving the canvassing board, he said.

    "They can do anything they want," Hubbard said.

    Even so, Archer and Domino said the damage already is done. They both said they were hurt by Vatikiotis' implication that their support of DiDonato would affect their ability to oversee the election fairly.

    Archer took issue with Vatikiotis' comments and said his support of DiDonato would not affect his ability to oversee the elections process.

    "I think (Vatikiotis) is upset I'm not supporting him," Archer said. "I am saddened about the attack on my integrity."

    Archer was visibly shaken by Vatikiotis' comments in recent days. He ultimately decided to take himself off the canvassing board.

    "Even though . . . no one has any reason to think that I would not conduct myself with integrity, Mr. Vatikiotis does not think I am capable of doing so," Archer wrote in a letter to the editor. "Therefore, I will remove myself immediately from any role with this board."

    Domino said she also would be willing to step down from the canvassing board, although she also saw no reason that her position on the canvassing board should be questioned.

    "As a resident of Tarpon Springs, I feel I have the right to support whoever I want, and I support Frank," she said. But that support should not affect her position on the canvassing board, she said.

    A similar incident occurred five years ago, also involving Domino. At the time, Hubbard said a commissioner with a placard in her yard falls into a gray area of the city's charter. It is not necessarily a violation, he said at the time, but it is a gray area.

    "I didn't say Domino had to" take down a campaign sign supporting commission candidate Joan Tobey, he said at the time. "I just thought it would be much better."

    Hubbard said his statement in 1996 was an unresearched response to a reporter's question. He did not look into the details of the city charter at the time, and he did not issue a formal ruling.

    "I suspect my comments were in reaction to a question from a member of the press without the benefit of a more careful analysis and close reading of the code section," Hubbard wrote in an opinion filed Thursday with the City Clerk's Office.

    Domino maintains that she was the victim of a double standard. At the same time she took down a campaign sign in her yard, then-Commissioner Dudley Salley was allowed to donate $100 each to the campaigns of Helene Pierce and Karen Brayboy. Salley also said he would take down signs from his yard that supported the two candidates.

    Archer disputed Vatikiotis' claim that he and Domino could have an effect on the outcome of the election. He noted that the canvassing board has little to do with the counting of votes.

    "We don't count ballots; we don't even touch a machine," he said.

    City and county elections officials said canvassing boards have little or no involvement with the vote counting. Workers at the Supervisor of Elections Office count the ballots. Canvassing board members decide whether to accept or refuse certain absentee ballots, but they make that decision without knowing which candidates the absentee voter selected. If a recount is granted, they may be involved in counting the ballots by hand, said Kathy Alesafis, the city clerk in Tarpon Springs.

    Even so, there is no way members of the canvassing board could affect the outcome of an election, said Frank Gould, an election specialist with the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office.

    "I don't see it," Gould said.

    The disagreement about the canvassing board is growing into a broader conflict. Archer said he likes Vatikiotis and has had good dealings with him in the past. As an automotive sales manager, he sold two cars to Vatikiotis' family.

    But he said he worries about the tone of Vatikiotis' criticism of the current commission.

    "How would he be if he was mayor and a citizen got up and disagreed with him?" Archer said.

    Vatikiotis said he did not attack anybody personally.

    "I think Jim is simply playing politics now," he said. "If Jim Archer feels that his integrity is under attack, that is a personal perception of his."

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

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