TARPON SPRINGS — On taxes, economic development and the environment, City Commission candidates had practiced their talking points.
But as David Banther, Jim Bouldin, Tommy Frain and Tim Keffalas faced off Monday for the final time before the March 12 election, the audience lobbed some unusual questions.
Which opponent do you admire most and why?
What commission decision have you most disagreed with?
And what do you think of termed-out Vice Mayor Chris Alahouzos?
The candidates, who are vying for the seat soon to be vacated by Alahouzos, answered as carefully as possible during the fast-paced forum hosted by the Greater Tarpon Springs Democratic Club. At least 60 people attended, many of whom said they were undecided.
Moderator Jonathan Snow, a former congressional candidate, drew laughter as he asked candidates to discuss their favorite opponent.
Keffalas praised Frain, the youngest candidate, for presenting himself so well at the age of 22. Bouldin and Frain touted Banther's commitment to Tarpon.
"I can only say good things about his work here in the community," Frain said.
The audience also asked about littering, sewage and gun control.
Keffalas and Frain said they wouldn't support a city-sponsored program to buy back unwanted guns, while Bouldin and Banther said they would.
Candidates mostly kept to their talking points.
Frain, for example, frequently steered the conversation toward economic development, an issue he has tried to make his own. He argued that Tarpon should streamline business permitting to encourage economic growth.
"We need to create a more positive business environment," he said. "It's all about getting people to the area."
Keffalas often referred to himself as a watchdog over city government.
"I would be an advocate for voters and look out for your tax dollars," he said.
On most of the main points, the candidates agreed. The city should do more to promote economic development and attract tourists. The environment should be protected. And the commission should pass a conservative budget while preserving services.
The consensus could make it difficult to decide for some spectators.
"They don't seem to be terribly different on the issues," said Joan Jennings-McCabe, a New York retiree and undecided voter. "I think it will probably end up coming down to experience."
Marty Peters, chairman of Tarpon's Budget Advisory Committee, said he's deciding between Banther and Bouldin.
His priority, he said, is picking a candidate who's fiscally responsible.
"We want somebody who knows we need to raise money if we're going to pay for the services we want," he said.
Candidates also jockeyed to convince the audience of their dedication to Tarpon Springs.
Banther, Keffalas and Frain often referenced their decades in the city and their community service.
Bouldin, a former journalist from Michigan, seemed to go out of his way to avoid mentioning he's from out of the area. Rather, he argued his lifetime in community service, business and management make him the best candidate.
"I'm really encouraged, I am," Bouldin said. "I'm not sure how this thing's going to come out voterwise. But this just feels right to me."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 323-0353.