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Crystal River council election is wide open

City Council member Ron Kitchen doesn't want his bid for re-election to be a close race.

He would rather win or lose, he says, by 400 votes _ a lofty disparity in a city that attracted 673 voters last year.

"I hope it's decisive. I think the issues are very cut and dry," Kitchen said Monday, the first day candidates could formally place their names on the City Council ballot. "I think we need to know what direction voters want us to go."

This year, that direction is up for grabs.

Three council seats will be available in the Dec. 9 city election, a race that has been talked about in Crystal River since the seats were filled two years ago. Kitchen, Kitty Ebert and Daryl Oster _ the council members elected on a platform of fiscal accountability _ are up for re-election.

Kitchen and Ebert filed Monday to retain their council seats. Longtime business leader Ed Tolle filed to challenge Kitchen, while formercounty Democrat leader Mike Gudis will run against Ebert.

The race could have significant implications for the tumultuous Crystal River City Council. Council members Claire Laxton and Levi Phillips, elected in December and secure in their seats until December 1998, have cast most of the minority votes since joining the panel.

Laxton and Phillips, who unsuccessfully held out for a higher property-tax rate, opposed a proposal by Ebert, Kitchen and Oster to hold the tax rate steady in September. If just one of the three members loses his or her seat in December, Laxton and Phillips might have more influence.

Ebert, 64, has lived in Crystal River 11 years. She served on the council in the early 1990s and was re-elected two years ago.

Since then, Ebert has started the Crystal River Beautification Committee, a group that has landscaped parts of the city, tended flowers at City Hall and raised money for new welcome signs.

"We made good progress in making the city more like a business, and I want to keep right on going," Ebert said. "I want to drag this city into the 21st century."

She said she is pleased with the city's direction and is running for another term because government, by nature, "takes some time to get things going."

Gudis, 61, moved to Citrus County in 1992 and to Crystal River about 18 months ago. He was a founding member of the Boys and Girls Club of Citrus County, an organization that first heightened his interest in Crystal River.

He moved here from Montgomery County, Md., where he was a County Council member for 12 years. He ran unsuccessfully for Citrus County Commission last year.

He said he would like to join the council to help restore decorum to the divisive panel.

"There's a lot of negative feelings right now, even outside the city of Crystal River, in Inverness and Homosassa," Gudis said.

Gudis hopes the council can work more closely with community organizations. The current council has held back from wholeheartedly endorsing community events because members did not want to prefer one civic group over another.

"I certainly don't see the chamber (of commerce) or Sertoma or the Lions or the Elks as being special-interest groups," Gudis said. "I think they are groups of hardworking volunteers working to do what we're all trying to do, to make the city better."

Kitchen, 41, is president and chief executive officer of Barbaron Inc., a Crystal River-based golf construction company. He moved to the city 10 years ago and has long been an active business leader.

Kitchen said he had not originally planned to seek re-election, but he wants to see the city pursue the same goals. He had hoped others would take the reins, but instead, others are stepping forward with different initiatives.

"What I had envisioned was that the city was headed in one direction," Kitchen said. "Then once the people had spoken and the direction of the city was changed, different people would come up and want to serve."

His challenger, Tolle, 74, has lived in Citrus County for 50 years. He has lived in Inverness and Crystal River over the years but moved to Crystal River permanently in 1983.

Besides his two-year stint on the council, Tolle was Citrus County tax assessor in the 1960s and '70s. Most recently, he has been a successful real estate agent and business owner in Crystal River and owns much of the property in the city's downtown district.

"I have no problem with conservatism in government, but I believe they've overdone it in some cases," he said. "I'm not any fiscal liberal. I don't have any wild spending ideas."