TARPON SPRINGS — In this town of about 23,000 people, it's not hard to find someone who has an opinion on the Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for the banks of the Anclote River.
Supporters say it will bring jobs and budget-saving prices to an area hit hard by the economic downturn. Opponents say it will spoil the town's unique character and destroy the environmentally sensitive site.
Now the past positions of some city officials are casting a shadow over the next phase of the debate.
In recent weeks, Wal-Mart attorney David Theriaque has thrown a spate of motions at city board members, asking that they recuse themselves from site plan amendment hearings because they've previously voiced opposition to the project.
"There is a pattern we believe demonstrates that they can't be fair and impartial decision-makers," Theriaque said. "All the actions these folks did (before they were elected or appointed to city boards) were perfectly legal. They were perfectly within their rights as private citizens. They're wearing a different hat now."
Two planning and zoning board members have stepped out, another has refused, and at least two city commissioners will need to make a decision soon on whether to disqualify themselves from the proceedings.
The issue of recusals isn't going unnoticed by city officials, who realize Wal-Mart could be positioning itself for a court battle.
Theriaque said last week that he hadn't discussed litigation with his client, but acknowledged it could be a means of recourse.
In recent weeks, Theriaque has sought recusals from:
• John Tarapani and Bill Vinson, newly appointed members of the Planning and Zoning Board, citing their statements against the store at public hearings. Both recused themselves.
• Jeff Larsen, planning and zoning chairman. Theriaque said Larsen and his wife, Dory, have been involved in lawsuits against Wal-Mart. Dory Larsen is president of Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs, which opposes the project. Jeff Larsen denied any involvement in the lawsuits and said his relationship with his wife has no bearing on his ability to make an unbiased decision. He said he had consulted with the Florida Commission on Ethics about the matter. Larsen declined to recuse himself and is scheduled to preside over the next half of the board's meeting, scheduled for tonight.
• City Commissioner Susan Slattery, citing her involvement in legal challenges to the project and her involvement with Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs. Slattery said she opted out of two lawsuits filed against Wal-Mart, and contested only some hearing requests on permitting issues because they pertained to the environment. Slattery said this week that she has not been involved with any opposition group since she ran for office last winter. Slattery, who campaigned on an anti-Wal-Mart platform, brushed aside references to those statements as "campaign promises."
This week, Slattery said she hadn't made a final decision on whether to recuse herself.
"As a commissioner, I would never want to put the city in any jeopardy whatsoever. That's why I'm speaking to legal counsel to see what my options are," she said.
• City Commissioner Peter Dalacos. Theriaque put Dalacos on notice last week that he would be asking for his recusal. Dalacos has publicly criticized Wal-Mart for its handling of various issues throughout the process and voted against Wal-Mart's original site plan in January 2005.
Dalacos said he had no intention of recusing himself and accused Theriaque of "grasping at straws."
"I'm not going to let Theriaque bully me into backing down on having a vote on this issue. It's going to boil down to him coming up with the threats and I'm not afraid of Wal-Mart," Dalacos said.
Those who seek to serve are generally civic-minded or have histories of activism, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. So it's not surprising various board members have previously taken a stance on the proposed Wal-Mart, the most controversial issue to face the city in the last decade.
The issue is whether those previously expressed opinions constitute bias or a conflict of interest, attorneys on both sides said.
City attorney Jim Yacavone, who sent a memo on those issues to city officials in late September, said he will advise commissioners about disqualification standards, but can't make a decision for them. Because the standards applied to these cases vary significantly, how a judge would rule should Wal-Mart appeal any decisions made by the board is anybody's guess, Yacavone said.
"That's the million-dollar question," he said.
Mayor Beverley Billiris said her fellow board members would have to decide the matter for themselves.
"They will make their own individual choices. They're responsible for their choices," Billiris said.
"My concern is how their actions impact the city if we are sued, and I don't live in fear of suits, but I also don't want to give them ammunition to sue us.
Rita Farlow can be reached at (727) 445-4162 or [email protected]