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    Mayoral race pulls in commissioners

    The challenger for mayor believes that Tarpon Springs commissioners are campaigning against him.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- The ballot in the city's March 20 election will show two candidates' names under the heading of "mayor": Costa Vatikiotis and Frank DiDonato.

    But, according to one candidate, the race is not simply a contest between the two men.

    "There's no doubt in my mind that I've got five commissioners campaigning against me," Vatikiotis said recently.

    But the city commissioners see it differently. It appears to them that Vatikiotis is campaigning against them.

    The four commissioners who serve with DiDonato all have said they support his candidacy, and two of them have written letters to the St. Petersburg Times about the successes of the current commission.

    They also said Vatikiotis has put them in a position of defending themselves by making wholesale criticisms of the current commission, which he has derided for being ineffective, unresponsive to residents and too attentive to tourists.

    "I'm running for Commission Seat 4, but he has made it that I'm part of his campaign," Commissioner Beverley Billiris said. "He's put me in the position where I have to defend myself and my fellow commissioners. I wish he hadn't."

    Vatikiotis has made numerous statements during the campaign about the commission as a whole and individual commissioners.

    "I don't see any leadership on the commission by anyone," he said.

    Perhaps the biggest source of contention between Vatikiotis and commissioners arose last month when he said Commissioners Cindy Domino and Jim Archer should be removed from the city's canvassing board because they were actively supporting DiDonato.

    Vatikiotis questioned the commissioners' objectivity and said the City Commission should appoint canvassing board members "who are impartial and fair to the extent feasible." The canvassing board has a largely ceremonial role in overseeing the city's elections.

    City Attorney John Hubbard said the commissioners could support anyone they want. Still, Domino, Archer and Commissioner David Archie voluntarily stepped down from the canvassing board because of the controversy and what they described as attacks on their integrity by Vatikiotis.

    Many of Vatikiotis' criticisms have been more sweeping. He has said the commission does not do a good job of overseeing city finances and has tried to accomplish too much, too soon.

    "They've had three years to do as they wish without anyone really looking over their shoulder," he said in a recent interview.

    In spite of statements like that one, Vatikiotis said during an interview with a Times reporter and editorial writer that "I'm not running against the commission."

    Commissioners don't see it that way.

    "Every chance Costa has had, he has bashed the commission," said Archie, who is leaving office because of term limits. "He's talking about all the commissioners ... and then he says we're against him."

    He said he wasn't inclined to support anybody in the campaign publicly until Vatikiotis began criticizing the commission.

    "I've tried my best to stay out of the mayor's race," Archie said. "But how much abuse am I expected to sit back and take passively while he says the commission hasn't done anything?"

    Commissioner Jim Archer said he has nothing against Vatikiotis on a personal level. But professionally, he said, he does not like the approach Vatikiotis has taken during the campaign.

    "Costa's a bright person," Archer said. "But I really believe he's on a mission. ... He started attacking the commission a long time ago."

    All of the commissioners have worked with DiDonato and Vatikiotis through the years, and all have viewed the two men's leadership styles. Domino said the commissioners' support for DiDonato is based partly on their belief in the mayor's leadership style and partly on a disapproval of Vatikiotis' style.

    "Obviously we all have issues with him," Domino said.

    If Vatikiotis is elected, he would serve with at least two, and possibly three, of the current commissioners, depending on whether Billiris wins re-election. Billiris said that would return Tarpon Springs politics to the contentious tone of the past.

    "If he gets in," Billiris said, "how is he going to work with us?"

    Vatikiotis said if he is elected, he would bring a "diversity of opinion" to the commission.

    "I think there'll be more discussion than there has been in the past," he said, "and I think that's healthy."

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

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