TARPON SPRINGS — City Commission candidate Herb Elliott says his two stints as Tarpon Springs' city attorney give him the experience to be a major asset around City Hall.
Elliott faces Tod Eckhouse and Susan Slattery in Tuesday's election to replace Vice Mayor David Archie, who must leave because of term limits.
Elliott, 61, says he knows municipal law, understands complicated budget and planning issues and even wrote the city's charter.
But Elliott, who twice resigned at the behest of former mayors, has been the subject of controversy in Tarpon Springs more than once.
For starters, there's that "bowl of spaghetti."
That's the euphemism a grand jury used in 1987 to describe what authorities believe was a bribe offered to Elliott while he was city attorney.
Elliott was never charged with anything, and he was mentioned only once in a report that criticized other city officials at greater length and in harsher terms. Nor did the grand jury say exactly what that bowl of spaghetti symbolized.
Still, Elliott was criticized for not reporting the offer in the grand jury's report, which went on to propose disbanding the city's Police Department or possibly even abolishing the city itself.
Today, Elliott said he didn't report the offer because he didn't believe it to be serious. There was no mention of money or special favors, and Elliott never acted on the caller's request, he said. The episode, he said, was blown out of proportion.
Tongue-in-cheek, Elliott has said that he never received so much as a meatball from the person.
But when asked how he would react to a similar offer today, he responded: "Certainly, I would report it to the appropriate criminal authorities."
The grand jury's eight-page presentment included no evidence of criminal activity in Tarpon Springs city government, but it was highly critical of then-Mayor Tom Koulianos and several other city officials.
Elliott, who became city attorney in 1978, offered his resignation in January 1987 under pressure from Koulianos. Koulianos said then that he disagreed with Elliott's advice on several issues.
In 1992, he was reappointed to the same position, but resigned again in 1996. Newspaper accounts from the time reported that Elliott was asked to leave by then-Mayor Anita Protos.
In a memo, Protos told Elliott his leaving would be "in everyone's best interest."
Protos, who supports Elliott's current bid for City Commission, said her sentiments were misconstrued in 1992. She encouraged Elliott to resign, she said, because he was caught in the middle of a battle over the proposed sale of Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.
"It wasn't that he did anything wrong. Sometimes people need to step back, and this was one of those times," she said. "He was going through hell from both sides, and no one needs to have that."
Protos said Elliott was an excellent city attorney who would make a good addition to the current commission.
"While he was city attorney, we could always bank on his judgment," she said. "He would always find every detail that would make it smooth sailing with the city and he was very precise and did his homework."
But Protos criticized Elliott during an October 1995 meeting, when he suggested his private law firm provide title insurance for the city's new library. Then Protos said she was concerned with the appearance of impropriety.
When asked about the incident this week, Protos was less critical of Elliott.
"He was doing that out of trying to help the city," she said. "He wasn't trying to make money off the city."
And Elliott said his departure in 1996 had nothing to do with his offer to provide title insurance to the city. Rather, he said, commissioners were displeased with his advice about issues surrounding Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.
Still, that wasn't the first time Elliott came under fire for offering his firm's services. He was also investigated for a 1982 land deal, in which he represented the city when it bought some property and then sold $175 worth of title insurance to the property sellers.
Elliott says that deal was done with approval of the City Commission. But a letter he wrote to the board outlining his role in the deal was dated four days after a warranty deed for the sale was signed.
Since he is semiretired, Elliott said he didn't expect any conflicts of interest in the future and would recuse himself from any issues that present conflicts of interest.
Affable and witty, Elliott said he's proud of what he accomplished as city attorney: helping to bring the sewer plant to the city, negotiating a contract to buy City Hall, leading the charge to rid downtown of an abandoned landfill. They are but a few of the major projects he saw to completion while city attorney, Elliott said.
"The city's in much better shape now," he said.
If elected, Elliott said he would fight to cut costs without raising taxes and maintain the city's current level of services without layoffs.
Elliott said his extensive knowledge of Tarpon Springs' government would benefit the city. And he's been approached by many residents who want to see him in office, he said.
"I know the town. The town trusts me, I believe," he said.
But not everybody has faith in Elliott.
Local activist Mary Mosley, who served one term on the City Commission in the early 1980s, repeatedly declined to provide specific criticisms of Elliott this week but made clear she does not support his candidacy and does not think he would be good for the city as commissioner.
"This community better brace themselves" if he's elected, she said.
"He's one of Tarpon's finest sons," she said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4162.