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A diverse lot makes for heated forums

As Tuesday's election in Tarpon Springs draws near, political talks have grown more intense.

If you want to trace the evolution of this year's campaign for mayor and commissioner in Tarpon Springs, you could watch the sprouting of political signs, read newspaper articles and compare literature in mailers and advertisements.

Or you could have attended one of the political forums held throughout the city.There have been eight in the past month.

In the month leading to Tuesday's election, the city has had nearly as many forums as Clearwater, which has a population nearly five times the size of Tarpon Springs. In this election, the forums have been increasingly partisan and contentious.

Candidates said they are not surprised by the popularity of the forums in Tarpon Springs, typically a politically active city.

"We have more and more residents who want to meet the people they're voting for," said Commissioner Beverley Billiris, who is running for re-election against Joseph Pisani. "Tarpon Springs has always been a community that has been well-informed when there's an election."

"This city wants to know what's going on," said candidate Spanos Harding, who is running for a commission seat against Karen Brayboy.

The first forum was at the Woods of Anderson Park on Feb. 14. Several candidates stood before a crowded room of residents and wished them a happy Valentine's Day. The audience munched on candy hearts while listening to the candidates.

Candidates talked about a local issue that was a concern of many of the development's residents: the closing of the yard waste facility behind the Woods. They talked about the traffic on U.S. 19 and answered questions about the need for a stoplight at the entrance to the Woods.

The forum also marked the beginning of what has become an often negative mayoral campaign. Candidate Costa Vatikiotis told residents that the current mayor and commissioners have not met the city's needs and have spent Penny for Pinellas money unwisely. He criticized city officials for not responding to residents quickly enough.

Mayor Frank DiDonato disputed his opponent's claims. He said the city has spent money wisely and always has responded quickly to residents.

The exchange was just a preview of things to come. The election season _ especially the campaign for mayor _ has featured some stinging criticisms lobbed by candidates.

By the time they got to the last few forums, the gloves had come off completely. Audiences also had grown more vocal about their support of one mayoral candidate or the other.

At the Green Dolphin condominiums Wednesday, Vatikiotis discussed his campaign signs and mailers. The mailers caution that his opponent would destroy the beauty of Tarpon Springs.

"If we're not careful, the beauty of Tarpon Springs will soon disappear," his postcard said.

DiDonato said his opponent has been "less than truthful."

"I ask you to remember truthfulness when you vote on March 20," he said.

The crowd at the Citizens Alliance for Progress forum, which was held Thursday night, featured a largely partisan group. Supporters of Vatikiotis sat on the left side of the room, and many supporters of DiDonato sat on the right. A few observers with no obvious affiliation were scattered on both sides.

Several people applauded when one candidate spoke and sat completely still when his opponent spoke. The two candidates disagreed about nearly every question, including what should be done to attract more minorities into positions of authority at City Hall and the appropriate approach to closing a voyeur dorm on Kreamer Bayou.

The contrasts between the two men probably contributed to the high interest in the forums this year, said Nels Jensen, who moderated a forum at the Pointe Alexis Clubhouse last weekend.

"I think there's an extraordinary interest in the mayor's race." he said. "There are sharp contrasts in the two styles."

He noted that the forum at Pointe Alexis turned into "pretty much a two-way debate" between Vatikiotis and DiDonato.

"It was an opportunity to ask a question and hear two answers . . . expressed back-to-back," he said. "I think that was very satisfactory to the people."

_ Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or