The 2010 election season in Tarpon Springs is a busy one, with six candidates seeking three seats on the City Commission in the March 9 election. Two issues seem paramount this year.
First, how will Tarpon Springs navigate the financial shoals that are threatening city governments throughout Florida, forcing them to lay off workers and cut services?
Second, when the economy improves and growth picks up, under what conditions will Tarpon Springs allow it to occur? The city's controversial 2005 approval of a Walmart Supercenter alongside the Anclote River remains an undercurrent in this campaign, even though the store has not been built. All candidates are facing questions about how they would maintain Tarpon Springs' character.
To prepare for making its editorial board recommendations, the St. Petersburg Times has interviewed the candidates and studied their backgrounds and platforms. We urge all Tarpon Springs residents to vote March 9. The newspaper's recommendations on nine city charter amendments also on the ballot will be printed later this week.
For Mayor: David Archie
In the race to replace Mayor Beverley Billiris, whose term is expiring, former city Commissioner David Archie, 56, faces a familiar foe: attorney Matt King, 34, who unsuccessfully challenged Archie for his commission seat in 2005.
King, a Walmart opponent whose primary issue is protecting Tarpon's character, is better informed than in 2005 and is starting to grow a record of community involvement that was missing then. We hope he will stay active and run again, perhaps for a commission seat rather than mayor and after he has resolved the foreclosure proceeding on one of his properties.
Archie already has a record to stand on, and it is a strong one. He has devoted two decades to serving the people of Tarpon Springs, both as an elected official and in his full-time job as executive director of the Citizens Alliance for Progress. Archie is well-prepared to be mayor.
Tarpon Springs voters have returned Archie to the City Commission again and again. He was a commissioner from 1996 to 2001 and from 2002 to 2008. An independent decision maker aligned with no particular interest group, Archie's thoughtful, respectful approach to his job had a calming influence on commissions roiled by politics or personality conflicts. Archie is known throughout Pinellas County because of his participation in countywide groups and boards such as the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. His relationships with other government officials could be helpful to Tarpon Springs.
Archie knows that finances are the most important challenge for city officials. Tarpon Springs has a healthy reserve fund as a cushion against the kinds of draconian cuts that other local governments are making, but he said the city cannot continue to rely on spending its savings. An alternative, he said, is to try to grow the tax base by attracting new businesses to Tarpon Springs. He said the city should consider hiring someone, at least part time, to assist existing businesses and promote economic development. The city also needs to do more, he said, to promote tourism and market Tarpon Springs as a venue for movie-making. Tax incentives for businesses also are worth exploring, he said.
Part of attracting new businesses is making sure that the city has good schools and an educated workforce, so Archie wants to start a mentoring program that would encourage city employees to mentor students in city schools. He wants to meet with officials at the Pinellas Technical Education Centers about bringing job training programs to Tarpon Springs.
Two important roles for a mayor are running commission meetings and representing the city government to outsiders. Archie said that as mayor, he would give every commissioner their say, but he would not allow the sniping and disrespect that have marred recent commission meetings. As the city's ceremonial leader, Archie would be an enthusiastic city booster. "Tarpon is positioned to do great things," he said.
For mayor, the Times recommends David Archie.
For Seat 3: Jeff Larsen
City Commissioner Peter Dalacos is leaving because of term limits and two candidates are vying to replace him.
Joseph Muzio, a 58-year-old real estate agent who is active in the Chamber of Commerce, is making his third bid for the commission. He lost two races in the 1990s. Jeff Larsen, 32, is running for the first time. He is a reading teacher at Gulf Middle School in New Port Richey.
Larsen is an exciting newcomer — energetic, smart and conversant on the issues that impact city governments. He has capably chaired the city's Planning and Zoning Board for three years and was chosen by the City Commission to represent Tarpon Springs in a seven-county visioning workshop.
Larsen calls himself an environmentalist. He wants to plant more trees, discourage use of polluting septic tanks, and promote energy conservation and ecotourism.
He also supports steps to ensure that Tarpon Springs can grow and thrive without losing its small-town charm. He is an advocate of adopting a "smart code" — land-development rules that would head off problems before a project is built, promote walkable communities and require projects to be compatible with surrounding land uses.
Larsen wants to make the city's budget process more transparent and contribute to a more open, friendly and professional atmosphere at City Commission meetings. He wants to consider long-term solutions to the city's financial challenges, such as contracting out some services and making better use of technology.
For Seat 3, the Times recommends Jeff Larsen.
For Seat 4: Chris Alahouzos
The only incumbent in this year's election, Chris Alahouzos, 59, is asking voters for another term on the commission. He is being challenged by newcomer Beverly Kurpinski, a 63-year-old retired business woman.
Kurpinski has been paying close attention to city business for less than a year. Her lack of knowledge shows in candidate forums and interviews. She is not ready to be a commissioner, especially in these challenging times for elected officials.
Fortunately, voters have an excellent alternative in Alahouzos. Born in Greece and a 42-year resident of Tarpon Springs, Alahouzos has been criticized by some as too tied to the city's Greek community and its needs. We see, instead, an activist commissioner who responds to needs throughout the city.
For example, Alahouzos was the first member of the commission to react when this newspaper reported on dangerous conditions on the children's playground at the Mango Circle housing complex. He worked to improve the city Web site and make it more accessible for all residents. He persuaded the commission to appoint a citizens budget advisory committee to study the city budget and advise the commission on finances.
A longtime supervisor at Verizon, Alahouzos brings many of the skills and methods he has learned as a manager to his City Commission job. He takes pride in being professional, organized and effective, and he wants Tarpon Springs city government to behave that way, too.
For Seat 4, the Times recommends Chris Alahouzos.
Opportunity to respond: Candidates not recommended by the Times may submit a written response for publication prior to the election. Responses may be no more than 250 words and may not attack opponents. They must be submitted by noon Tuesday to Diane Steinle, St. Petersburg Times, 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756. Or they may be faxed to (727) 445-4119 or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.