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    A Times Editorial

    DiDonato, Brayboy, Billiris would serve Tarpon well

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


    It was easy for people not to notice how quiet Tarpon Springs politics had become -- until the city election campaign got the pot boiling again and reminded everyone of how it used to be.

    The hard-fought race between incumbent Mayor Frank DiDonato and former City Manager Costa Vatikiotis has reopened old wounds and brought to the surface again bitter divisions in this city of 19,000.

    There has been less controversy in the other two races on the March 20 ballot. Commissioner David Archie, who has served long and well, is leaving commission Seat 3 because of term limits. Vying for that seat are Karen Brayboy, a former city commissioner, and Spanos Harding, who has made two previous runs for political office in the city.

    Incumbent Commissioner Beverley Billiris is being challenged by political newcomer Joseph Pisani for Seat 4.

    This is an important election for Tarpon Springs, because a majority of the seats on the five-member City Commission are open. That means decisions made by voters could continue some new directions begun by the city in the last year or two, or turn the city onto a different path.

    The Times has conducted a personal interview with each of the candidates; reviewed their backgrounds, platforms and public statements; and studied the records of the incumbents. We offer our recommendations here.

    We urge registered voters in Tarpon Springs to cast a ballot for the candidates of their choice on March 20.

    For mayor

    This race may represent the most difficult decision for Tarpon Springs residents.

    Both DiDonato and Vatikiotis are well-educated, articulate men with a core group of loyal supporters. Both have public sector records to stand on and both have campaigned strenuously for the mayor's post. They have different strengths, and both have some weaknesses, too.

    DiDonato, 53, is a chiropractor in private practice downtown. He was a city commissioner from 1989 to 1994 and was elected mayor in 1998. He is a former president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce, former chairman and current board member of the Tarpon Springs Boys & Girls Club, and serves on the board of the Tarpon Springs Rotary Club.

    Vatikiotis, 52, was city manager and city engineer from 1994 to 1998. He resigned after DiDonato was elected mayor and two weeks later was working for ABR Information Services Inc., a company that city officials had been trying to lure to Tarpon Springs to build its headquarters. After two years, Vatikiotis left that company and is now a private consulting engineer. He is a member of the Tarpon Springs Historical Society and Friends of the Library.

    Vatikiotis has been on the attack during the campaign. He claims the city has overspent on public projects and created a "cash flow crisis," given too much attention to the business community and "outside interests," and that the City Commission needs more "diversity of thought."

    DiDonato has denied Vatikiotis' charges and characterizes the city government as energized, progressive, professional and no longer fractured by political disputes. He lists what he considers his administration's successes, among them completion of the Sponge Docks renovations, the long-awaited start of the public safety building, beautification and cleanup projects all over town, a lowered city tax rate, and the creation of a downtown redevelopment concept plan.

    Those things and others were accomplished, he said, even though the first year of his three-year term in effect was lost when Vatikiotis unexpectedly resigned and the city had to bring in a new city manager, Ellen Posivach.

    We suggest that voters focus less on the charges and counter-charges in this race and more on the records and governing styles of the two candidates.

    As city manager, Vatikiotis was known for his intensity, his obsessiveness about the minutiae of government, and his tendency to expound at length on sometimes dry subjects. He insisted on being both city manager and city engineer and delegated few tasks. Sometimes that served the community well -- as when Vatikiotis had to go up against powerful Columbia-HCA in its effort to affiliate with Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital. But Vatikiotis had a way of personalizing those kinds of battles, and while he was manager, the post was more politicized than it has been since.

    We believe Vatikiotis is ill-suited to be mayor, a largely ceremonial role on the City Commission, a body which is supposed to make policy, not manage the city or involve itself in the day-to-day details of government. That is the city staff's job under the city manager-form of government.

    And besides, much of what has happened in Tarpon Springs the last couple of years has been positive. We like DiDonato's inclusive style of governing, his insistance on professionalism in City Hall and on the City Commission, and his less fiery political style than that of past mayors.

    That does not mean that DiDonato is without faults. He needs to ask more questions, take less for granted, be a more visible leader. He and the City Commission deserve criticism for allowing what was perceived by residents as a long period of too little productivity after Posivach started work.

    But DiDonato's style is to reach out -- to residents, businesses and tourists -- and that is good for Tarpon Springs. As soon as he was elected, DiDonato created a mayor's council to critique his performance and bring community issues to his attention. It continues to meet. The city has hired its first communications specialist, made its Web site more user-friendly and boosted customer service at City Hall.

    DiDonato is rightly proud of Tarpon Springs' improving relations with other cities, the county and the state -- relationships that are likely to bring more attention, cooperation and money to Tarpon Springs. He has encouraged fellow commissioners to serve on county and regional boards and participate in organizations such as the Florida League of Cities that support and educate elected officials.

    Previous city officials were "fort-builders, not bridge-builders," DiDonato said. "We are trying to reach out in every direction."

    Early in his first term DiDonato insisted that the city stop fighting with Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital and instead help the struggling hospital form a relationship with a prosperous partner. DiDonato's timing was right. Helen Ellis is now operated by University Community Hospital of Tampa and is starting the long road back to financial stability.

    We recommend a vote for Frank DiDonato for mayor.

    Seat 3

    In this race, voters can choose between a seasoned veteran or a new face.

    Karen Brayboy, 44, was a city commissioner from 1994 to 1999. Spanos Harding, 37, never has served on the commission, but came in third in a three-way race for mayor in 1998 and lost a bid for a commission seat in 1989.

    Harding was born in Tarpon Springs and runs a propane gas business and a drywall and steel-framing company. He improves as a candidate each time he runs. In this campaign, he said he believes the current City Commission has avoided controversies that plagued previous commissions and is doing a good job. He said he would like to continue the city's effort to improve and update its infrastructure, while maintaining the city's history and traditions.

    Brayboy has been in the investment business since 1983 and operates two investment and employee benefits companies on Lemon Street. She has been involved in many community activities, is a past chairwoman of the Pinellas Planning Council, and while in office was active in the Florida League of Cities. She has a full understanding of the issues in this race.

    Brayboy is regarded as a political ally of Vatikiotis, but she has been much more measured in her criticism of the current administration than he has and she has a more positive, progressive outlook on the future. We believe her knowledge and comfort with numbers and finances would be valuable on the City Commission and that she would try to develop positive working relationships with fellow commissioners and staffers.

    We recommend a vote for Karen Brayboy.

    Seat 4

    This one is really no contest.

    Joseph Pisani, 37, owns a hair salon in Tarpon Springs and is making his first run for public office. He has talked a lot about what he would do if elected: make more people come to City Commission meetings, bring more integrity to city government, and improve marketing of City Hall, for example. But he has few specifics and is poorly informed on most issues.

    Billiris, 53, is seeking her second term on the City Commission. A former teacher, Billiris is a sponge merchant and the operator of a new Tarpon Springs-area tour business. The many business activities of Billiris and her husband, George, raise the possibility of conflicts with her city post, but Billiris promises to carefully monitor the situation and abstain from voting on issues in which a conflict could be perceived.

    As a commissioner, Billiris does her homework, asks good questions, and maintains a professional bearing that makes her a good representative of the city. She has a thorough understanding of the tourist business, which increases her value on the commission in a city where the No. 1 business is tourism.

    We recommend a vote for Beverley Billiris for Seat 4.

    Tarpon Springs election

    WHEN: March 20

    AT STAKE: The mayor's post and Seats 3 and 4 on the Tarpon Springs City Commission.

    TERM, SALARY All are elected citywide to three-year terms. The mayor is paid $13,000 annually. Commissioners make $8,000 a year.

    Times recommends

    The Times has previously published detailed recommendations of candidates in Tuesday's Clearwater, Oldsmar and Safety Harbor elections. Here is a summary:

    Clearwater City Commission

    SEAT 3: Hoyt Hamilton

    SEAT 4: Whitney Gray

    SEAT 5: Bill Jonson

    Hamilton, Gray, Jonson for City Commission (March 4, 2001)

    Oldsmar City Council

    MAYOR: Ed Manny

    SEAT 2:Jean Jorgenson

    SEAT 4:Dale Renbjor

    3 candidates bring needed skills to Oldsmar (March 2, 2001)

    Safety Harbor City Commission

    SEAT 4: Jan Tracy

    Keep Commissioner Tracy (February 28, 2001)

    Candidate replies

    Candidates not recommended may submit a written response for publication. Responses should be limited to 300 words and may not attack opponents. Responses must be submitted by 5 p.m. Tuesday to Opinion Page, St. Petersburg Times, 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756, or they may be faxed to (727) 445-4119 or e-mailed to steinle@sptimes.com.

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