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Crystal River to judge results of '95 choice

These were words that would keep this City Council member going.

Ron Kitchen cut the quote out of the newspaper two years ago, when he was newly elected and eager to show his sincerity. He taped the clipping to his council notebook and encouraged residents to post it on their refrigerators.

"The recent election was not about taxes, utility rates or the administration," Mayor Curtis Rich had written in a letter to the Citrus Times, "as you will see as the year unfolds."

Kitchen, Kitty Ebert and Daryl Oster, the council members elected together two years ago, wanted to prove the mayor wrong. They wanted to show that their election was about fundamental change, about handing the reins to the taxpayers.

Their opponents said the three were elected on agendas of power, control and small-town politics.

Now, as Ebert and Kitchen vie for re-election (Oster decided not to run again), the predictions about their leadership warrant review. The assessments of their performance are as varied as the predictions were.

Their election in 1995 was, for those who follow city politics, an event that polarized the city.

"It split the city wide open and created a rift in the city that will probably take many years to fix," said Roger Krieger, the former Crystal River city manager who resigned in the aftermath of that election. "This is not going to heal overnight."

At City Hall two Decembers ago, there was commotion.

The city manager and police chief resigned, citing philosophical differences with the new elected officials. The mayor said the city was in a "state of emergency," a comment that would inflame the council members he had to serve with.

If anything was severe about the election, it was the way it divided the city. Today, sentiments remain strong.

From Paula Wheeler, a campaign supporter for Kitchen and Ebert: "I've been watching very closely Ron and Kitty over the last two years. I think they've been the biggest supporters of the city. I think they've really tried to do what's best."

From Levi Phillips, the council member most likely to tangle with Kitchen and Ebert: "If they've had any goals, they have not reached them, and they've made no effort to try to reach them. This coalition council has been a total failure."

Coalition council. Even today, the words used to describe the three council members actually sting them. From the beginning, they were accused of representing special interests that wanted more control in City Hall.

But from the beginning, the council members charged that if lower taxes and more accountable city government are special interests, they were happy to be one.

"The most important thing that we've done is, we have managed to streamline our government and lower our taxes without any cutback in services," Ebert said.

But that streamlining, critics contend, had its price.

"I had the choice of resigning or doing their bidding," Krieger said. "It was very obvious I wouldn't be able to do the things they wanted me to do because they were wrong, in my opinion."

Opponents of Ebert, Kitchen and Oster said that employee morale would decline under their leadership. That services would suffer. That the city would be in financial distress.

Did those things come to pass? Again, it depends on who is talking.

The three council members had an effect on the tax rate, lowering it from 7.25 to 5.5 mills in one year. The tax rate approved for the 1997-98 year is again 5.5 mills, despite the city manager's effort to raise it to 6.19.

"I felt that the city was pretty much out of control," Kitchen said. "Taxes kept going up, and the only way to balance the budget was to raise taxes."

Critics say the tax cut had a direct effect on the Police Department, where four positions _ two grant-supplied officers, a training officer and a civilian employee _ were phased out.

Those cuts have hit employee morale hard, say the council members' opponents, who also worry about the effect on public safety.

"They did just as we anticipated," Krieger said. "They did just as their overall master plan indicated."

The city election that residents face Dec. 9 will be a vote of confidence for Ebert and Kitchen or a change of direction for the city.

"I think this election will be a lot less emotional," Wheeler said. "I think people will hopefully understand the sincerity of what these people have done over the last two years."

Some don't see it that way. Mike Gudis and Ed Tolle, the local businessmen vying for Ebert's and Kitchen's seats, think the city's belt-tightening has been too extreme.

Richard Brady, a local nursing home administrator, and retiree Bill Moore are competing for Oster's seat.

"I think the city's going to move forward. I'm absolutely as confident of that as I've ever been in my life," Phillips said. "The people of Crystal River are going to clean house this time.

"If those three are gone Jan. 1, you'll see a different City Council. You'll see a different city."