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    Tarpon mayoral race is fiery to the finish

    As Costa Vatikiotis and Mayor Frank DiDonato spar, the former faces questions about the legality of his campaign signs.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- In what has been a spirited campaign, the mayor's race is wrapping up with yet another round of finger-pointing, including a question of whether one candidate's signs are legal.

    The dispute is typical of the campaign, which has been fiery and contentious from the start. Candidate Costa Vatikiotis has made numerous charges against Mayor Frank DiDonato and commissioners, and DiDonato has countered that he feels under attack and forced to defend what he sees as a productive term in office.

    The election will be Tuesday.

    The latest conflict involves some of Vatikiotis' campaign signs. The Tarpon Springs Police Department will look at signs posted by Vatikiotis to determine whether the signs follow election guidelines, police Chief Mark LeCouris said Wednesday. LeCouris said the department received a complaint about the signs, which say "Save Tarpon Springs." Many have no legible attribution on them.

    Vatikiotis said he hand-printed on the signs that his campaign paid for them, although as of Wednesday, many signs had only a thin, smudgy line at the bottom of them. Vatikiotis said the rain must have washed away the writing.

    "They were printed clearly when they were put out there," he said.

    DiDonato said he saw signs several days ago that had no attribution.

    "When they were originally put in the ground, they were illegal," DiDonato said.

    City Attorney John Hubbard said all such signs must cite who paid for them, and the writing must be clear.

    "It has to be legible or it doesn't count," Hubbard said. "The idea is, 'Who put it up?' "

    City Clerk Kathy Alesafis said she will talk to state elections officials today to determine whether the signs need to be identified as paid political advertisements. Elections laws cover only signs that specifically support a candidate or an issue, such as a referendum item, so Alesafis isn't sure what the rules are for the signs Vatikiotis posted.

    The race for mayor is a contest between two men who differ on almost every issue.

    DiDonato is campaigning on the successes of recent years, including beautification projects, approval of the affiliation between Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital and University Community Hospital and the lowering of city tax rates.

    He said the city is in good financial condition, and he said residents have seen an increase in city services while their taxes have not gone up.

    "I think that our city government is much more efficient than in the past," he said.

    He said he supports continued work on the city's wastewater treatment plant, and he pointed out that a new person recently was hired to run the plant. He said turning over sewage treatment to the county would result in a huge increase in costs to residents.

    He supports the downtown redevelopment proposal, which would connect downtown with the Sponge Docks. He said the plan is designed to benefit tourists and residents.

    "All we're doing is looking to improve the quality of life in Tarpon Springs," he said.

    Much of Vatikiotis' campaign has focused on budgetary issues. He said the city is spending too much too quickly and will run into a cash-flow management problem.

    "We are going to be very restricted with the amount of money we're going to have in the future," he said.

    Vatikiotis, the former city manager, has made the cost of the new Public Safety Building a prominent part of his campaign. He said the building is over budget, far in excess of the costs he approved for it. But records show that he signed off on plans that indicated the building would cost about $3.8-million, and currently the building's costs are about $4-million. Records also show that the entire project will come in at or slightly under budget.

    Vatikiotis disputed that this is an accurate way to characterize the costs of the building and his involvement in approving the costs.

    He does not support the proposed downtown redevelopment plan, which he said is too ambitious and focuses too much on tourists. He said the plan would spread out the city's tourist area.

    "Tourism belongs in the Sponge Docks," he said.

    He said the city should eliminate the odor at the treatment plant or consider closing it in a year. He favors building on the city's history with a focus on areas such as Craig Park and Tarpon Avenue.

    Vatikiotis has sent out a mailer to residents that warns, "If we're not careful, the beauty of Tarpon Springs will soon disappear." In the mailer, he said DiDonato is responsible for spending $100,000 for the downtown redevelopment plan. He also said the mayor has "invited gambling boats into the Sponge Docks and cellular towers and voyeur dorms into residential neighborhoods."

    DiDonato said the claims in the mailer are false. The city spent $62,000 for a consultant to develop the downtown redevelopment plan. Also, the mayor has not yet been involved in votes on gambling boats or cellular towers, and he has not expressed support for either. He has condemned the presence of a voyeur house in the city.

    The mailer continues the "Save Tarpon Springs" theme of Vatikiotis' signs. Vatikiotis said the slogan refers to his problems with the downtown redevelopment plan.

    DiDonato countered that the current commissioners "are working to save Tarpon Springs."

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

    Tarpon Springs mayoral race

    The mayor of Tarpon Springs serves a three-year term and receives $13,000 a year.

    The candidates

    FRANK DiDONATO, Age: 53

    Background: DiDonato was born in Live Oak and earned degrees from the University of Central Florida and Palmer College. He also served in the Navy. He has been a chiropractor and Tarpon Springs resident for 25 years. He served on the City Commission from 1991 to 1994 and has been mayor since 1998. He was president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce and has served on the Tarpon Springs Senior Services Advisory Council, the Rotary Club board of directors, the Boys and Girls Club and other community organizations. He is married and has three grown children.

    Assets: Home, office, savings.

    Liabilities: Mortgages on home and office.

    Income: Salaries as chiropractor and mayor.

    * * *

    COSTA VATIKIOTIS, Age: 52

    Background: Vatikiotis was born in Tampa and has degrees from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Florida State University and St. Petersburg Junior College. He was city manager ofand city engineer in Tarpon Springs from 1994 to 1998. He also has worked for ABR Information Services and the Center for Naval Analyses and as a commissioned officer in the Navy. Currently, he is an engineer in private practice. He is a member of the Tarpon Springs Historical Society, Friends of the Library and Sigma Xi, a scientific research society. He is a first-time candidate. He is married and has three children.

    Assets: House, mutual funds.

    Liabilities: Mortgage.

    Income: From his work as an engineer in private practice.

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