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    A heated race draws to an end

    A decent turnout is expected as Tarpon Springs voters head to the polls to pick a mayor and two city commissioners.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- Voters today will decide one of the hardest-fought mayoral races in recent memory.

    The city's 14,095 registered voters can choose between incumbent mayor Frank DiDonato and challenger Costa Vatikiotis, a former city manager.

    Other races match former commissioner Karen Brayboy and Spanos Harding, the owner of a propane business, for Commission Seat 3, and incumbent commissioner Beverley Billiris and hair salon owner Joseph Pisani for Commission Seat 4.

    Voter turnout should be 30 to 40 percent, City Clerk Kathy Alesafis said. Races involving mayoral candidates tend to have a higher turnout, she said.

    "When you have a mayor and commissioners running, it brings the voters in," she said.

    The weather could affect turnout, she said. If the heavy rains from Monday continue today, she said, the turnout will be closer to 30 percent. If it clears up, as is forecasted, the turnout should be about 40 percent, she said.

    The return rate of absentee ballots is a good indication of the interest in the races, she said. Of the 416 absentee ballots that were requested, the clerk's office received 361 as of Monday, the most in recent memory, she said.

    The mayor's race matches DiDonato, a chiropractor who has served three terms as mayor, and Vatikiotis, an engineer in private practice and the former city engineer and city manager.

    DiDonato, 53, has campaigned on a platform of stability and calm in the city government.

    He cites as successes the continued beautification projects and the city's approval of an affiliation agreement between Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital and University Community Hospital.

    Vatikiotis, 52, has been critical of the current mayor and commissioners, saying they have not been responsive enough to the needs of residents and have been too focused on tourists. He said the city currently is "out of balance." He has warned in mailers that "the beauty of Tarpon Springs will soon disappear."

    Brayboy, 44, served on the commission from 1994 to 1999. She operates investment and employee benefits companies, and she said she would work to improve the financial oversight of the city.

    Harding, 37, previously ran for mayor and commissioner. He said he likes many of the efforts the city is making, and he would continue down the same path. He said he would focus on making more activities available for children and families.

    Billiris, 53, has served on the commission for three years. She is involved in several tourist-oriented businesses. She said she is proud of the work of the current commission and the commissioners' willingness to "agree to disagree."

    Pisani, 37, is a political newcomer. He said he would focus on opening City Hall to all residents and encouraging residents to get involved in the community. He said his lack of experience would be an asset because he would enter the job with a "beginner's mind."

    Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Polling places are:

    Precincts 701 and 705: First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall, 1021 Gulf Road. (Next to the fire station).

    Precincts 702, 619 and 567: Tarpon Springs Manor, 61000 Polly Dr., off Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.

    Precincts 703, 704 and 710: St. Timothy Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall, 812 E Tarpon Ave.

    Precinct 706: Tarpon Springs Public Library meeting room, 138 E Lemon St.

    Precinct 707: Church on the Bayou Presbyterian Church USA Fellowship Hall, 409 Whitcomb Blvd.

    Voters must be registered and must present a picture identification, such as a Florida driver's license, and signature identification when they vote. For election information, call (727) 942-5614.

    Election results will be posted on the county Supervisor of Elections Web site tonight. The address is http://www.co.pinellas.fl.us/soe/.

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

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