The temperatures may be cooler, but October could be a hot month in Tarpon Springs. Wal-Mart's on the agenda. And the long-simmering hostility between Mayor Beverley Billiris and Commissioner Peter Dalacos has bubbled up again.
The city's Planning and Zoning Board met last week to hear the details of changes to Wal-Mart's plan for a supercenter on vacant land beside the Anclote River. The board was supposed to make a recommendation to the City Commission, but couldn't get it done.
Procedural issues and a request by Wal-Mart's attorney that two zoning board members recuse themselves kept the board bogged down long past the 7 p.m. start time Monday. By the time all that was resolved, and Wal-Mart and the opposition, Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs, had laid out their cases, it was almost 11 p.m., the agreed upon time for adjournment. None of the 35 audience members signed up to speak had made it to the microphone. In fact, only one speaker got to say his piece before the board adjourned, with plans to reconvene Oct. 20.
Not surprisingly, those who came to testify at the public hearing were angry after sitting for four hours and then being dismissed. The decision to reconvene three weeks later is awkward for a couple of reasons. Will the two sides have to present their cases again, because there is a long delay, and citizens therefore risk not having time to speak — again? And there's another timing problem: The City Commission meets the next night, Oct. 21, for its consideration of the Wal-Mart case, so there will be little time for commissioners to examine the Planning and Zoning Board's recommendation or ask questions about it, much less listen to a tape of the meeting or see written minutes.
At the Oct. 21 City Commission hearing, the possibility of a contentious, all-night meeting looms. That's what happened in January 2005, when a huge crowd packed City Hall to participate in the debate, and the commission's controversial decision to support the supercenter came shortly before sunrise. Major changes to Wal-Mart's site plan necessitated Round 2 next month.
Residents who have doggedly opposed the project at every turn are still there, dedicated to defeating a proposal they say would bring environmental damage to the riverside site, create heavy traffic and harm local businesses. Wal-Mart seems equally determined to prevail. Though the retailer has withdrawn plans for some other sites, it continues to pay a small army of lawyers and planners to push the plan forward in Tarpon Springs.
Billiris and Dalacos have been on opposite sides of the Wal-Mart issue in the past, but they don't need that case to square off at each other. That has been going on since 2004, when Dalacos became a commissioner and Billiris won the mayor's post.
Dalacos, consistently and contentedly a commission outsider during much of his time on the board, has a habit of rambling on and on in commission meetings. He likes to investigate things, and he asks lots of questions during meetings — some of them good questions, others repetitive or unnecessary. Billiris can't stand to listen to it. She also can't seem to hide her dislike of Dalacos, sometimes refusing to look at him, or doing paperwork or conversing with others on the dais while he talks.
Earlier this month, Billiris sent a memo to Dalacos that scolded him for his lack of consideration of others' time. He responded in writing that Billiris sounded "vindictive" and "frustrated," that people compliment him for his questions, and that it is his duty to thoroughly examine all of the issues that come before the board. Billiris answered that questions were fine, but the extended dialogue was disrespectful and interfered with her duty to conduct meetings efficiently.
There is right and wrong on both sides.
It is Billiris' job to run commission meetings so that business is conducted appropriately. But it is also important for a mayor to set a proper tone by her own behavior, and Billiris' shunning of Dalacos, or her rudeness while he is speaking, do not set a good example.
Dalacos is right that the voters expect him to be informed about the issues on which he must vote. Many elected officials don't spend enough time on homework; Dalacos can't be accused of that. But voters don't expect all of that work to be done during commission meetings. Dalacos' repetitive questioning, monologues and domination of meeting time come across as showing off for the cameras. He also seems to forget that the commission's primary job is to set policy and make sure its employee, the city manager, carries out that policy.
It is hoped that with so much of great import on the agenda in October, Dalacos and Billiris will be able to keep their tempers in check. The Wal-Mart issue will generate enough heat.