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    Ex-city manager has eye on office

    After Costa Vatikiotis speaks out at a meeting - and grates on his successor's nerves - as he says he'll run for city commissioner or mayor.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000


    TARPON SPRINGS -- Former City Manager Costa Vatikiotis lately has become a presence -- some might say an irritant -- in city affairs.

    He has begun showing up regularly at City Commission meetings and offering his analysis on issues. On Tuesday, his commentary provoked an uncharacteristically pointed response from City Manager Ellen Posivach.

    "I want everybody to understand that it's a very difficult situation to come into a city . . . and have a predecessor that constantly has comments not only on what you're doing, but implying that there are motives to it that are just not there," Posivach said.

    Vatikiotis said he has become a watchdog because he thinks city leaders aren't responsive enough to residents' needs. He has decided to do something about it: He's running for office in March.

    Vatikiotis, 52, has not decided whether he will run for city commissioner or mayor, he said Wednesday.

    "I really feel that the residents are not getting a fair shake," said Vatikiotis.

    He said he made the decision after the City Commission meeting Tuesday night, where he was critical of the city's handling of the wastewater treatment plant and a resident's bid to buy a piece of city property.

    At the meeting, Vatikiotis spoke at length about the city's plans for the wastewater treatment plant, reclaimed water and sewer lines, and he said the city should be cautious about spending money on "grandiose" projects.

    Later in the meeting, the city was trying to work out an arrangement with Ed Cole, executive director of the Affordable Housing Foundation. Cole's organization wants to build 16 three-bedroom apartments on property between Safford and Hibiscus avenues and south of Pine Street. Now, the organization only has enough land to build 12, and Cole wants the city to sell an adjacent parcel to the foundation to make room for the other four-unit building.

    To do that, the issue needs to go before voters as a referendum item in the March election. Tuesday night, City Attorney John Hubbard said commissioners shouldn't act "prematurely" and should gather more information about the plan, and Commissioner Beverley Billiris asked for written verification that Cole's organization has funding for the project.

    Posivach, who replaced Vatikiotis after his 1998 resignation, originally suggested in a memo that Cole should show verification of funding and said the city should not make a decision about the land until receiving a final report from a consultant. In earlier versions of the consultant's downtown makeover plan, the property would have been part of an art walk.

    Vatikiotis criticized the city for suggesting that Cole should provide written verification, something he said the city doesn't require of other developers.

    "You would not do that for any other person other than Mr. Cole and these projects," he said to the commissioners.

    Mayor Frank DiDonato pointed out that the city often requires contingencies in contracts.

    Posivach took issue with Vatikiotis' criticism, and said the city has to be cautious with this case because it could set a precedent in the way the city sells its land. "I personally resent the fact that anyone would come here and say that I have singled out Mr. Cole," she said. She added that she feels strongly "about my integrity and my 25 years in public service."

    Posivach could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

    Vatikiotis said the discussions at the meeting made it apparent to him that he should run for commissioner or mayor. He also criticized the handling of some issues, including the firing of former Finance Director Jeff Rosencrans. He pointed out that Posivach gave Rosencrans a satisfactory evaluation, and that she cited some of Vatikiotis' evaluations of Rosencrans when she offered a reason for the firing.

    "I think someone needs to run for office who can bring some soberness to the process," he said.

    Vatikiotis said he has picked up the papers to run for office but has not filed.

    When he announced his resignation in 1998, he said he was no longer happy in the position. He and DiDonato often clashed at public meetings, and the commission often amended or threw out the city manager's initiatives.

    DiDonato, who is campaigning for re-election, disagreed with Vatikiotis' assessment of the current commission.

    "I think we certainly have been responsive. We're reaching out like I've not seen anyone reach out before," he said. "I am definitely running for mayor, and I'll take on whomever, including Mr. Vatikiotis."

    Anita Protos, who served as mayor when Vatikiotis was named city manager, said she was thrilled he would run for office.

    "Costa will serve his community well," she said. "I think we're very fortunate to have his caliber of candidate running for office."

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

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