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A heated race draws to an end

A decent turnout is expected as Tarpon Springs voters head to the polls to pick a mayor and two city commissioners.

Voters today will decide one of the hardest-fought mayoral races in recent memory.

The city's 14,095 registered voters can choose between incumbent mayor Frank DiDonato and challenger Costa Vatikiotis, a former city manager.

Other races match former commissioner Karen Brayboy and Spanos Harding, the owner of a propane business, for Commission Seat 3, and incumbent commissioner Beverley Billiris and hair salon owner Joseph Pisani for Commission Seat 4.

Voter turnout should be 30 to 40 percent, City Clerk Kathy Alesafis said. Races involving mayoral candidates tend to have a higher turnout, she said.

"When you have a mayor and commissioners running, it brings the voters in," she said.

The weather could affect turnout, she said. If the heavy rains from Monday continue today, she said, the turnout will be closer to 30 percent. If it clears up, as is forecasted, the turnout should be about 40 percent, she said.

The return rate of absentee ballots is a good indication of the interest in the races, she said. Of the 416 absentee ballots that were requested, the clerk's office received 361 as of Monday, the most in recent memory, she said.

The mayor's race matches DiDonato, a chiropractor who has served three terms as mayor, and Vatikiotis, an engineer in private practice and the former city engineer and city manager.

DiDonato, 53, has campaigned on a platform of stability and calm in the city government.

He cites as successes the continued beautification projects and the city's approval of an affiliation agreement between Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital and University Community Hospital.

Vatikiotis, 52, has been critical of the current mayor and commissioners, saying they have not been responsive enough to the needs of residents and have been too focused on tourists. He said the city currently is "out of balance." He has warned in mailers that "the beauty of Tarpon Springs will soon disappear."

Brayboy, 44, served on the commission from 1994 to 1999. She operates investment and employee benefits companies, and she said she would work to improve the financial oversight of the city.

Harding, 37, previously ran for mayor and commissioner. He said he likes many of the efforts the city is making, and he would continue down the same path. He said he would focus on making more activities available for children and families.

Billiris, 53, has served on the commission for three years. She is involved in several tourist-oriented businesses. She said she is proud of the work of the current commission and the commissioners' willingness to "agree to disagree."

Pisani, 37, is a political newcomer. He said he would focus on opening City Hall to all residents and encouraging residents to get involved in the community. He said his lack of experience would be an asset because he would enter the job with a "beginner's mind."

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Polling places are:

Precincts 701 and 705: First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall, 1021 Gulf Road. (Next to the fire station).

Precincts 702, 619 and 567: Tarpon Springs Manor, 61000 Polly Dr., off Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.

Precincts 703, 704 and 710: St. Timothy Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall, 812 E Tarpon Ave.

Precinct 706: Tarpon Springs Public Library meeting room, 138 E Lemon St.

Precinct 707: Church on the Bayou Presbyterian Church USA Fellowship Hall, 409 Whitcomb Blvd.

Voters must be registered and must present a picture identification, such as a Florida driver's license, and signature identification when they vote. For election information, call (727) 942-5614.

Election results will be posted on the county Supervisor of Elections Web site tonight. The address is http://www.co.pinellas.fl.us/soe/.

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

MAYOR'S RACE

The mayor of Tarpon Springs serves a three-year term and is paid $13,000 a year.

THE CANDIDATES

Frank DiDonato

Age: 53

Background: DiDonato was born in Live Oak and earned degrees from the University of Central Florida and Palmer College. He also served in the Navy. He has been a chiropractor and Tarpon Springs resident for 25 years. He served on the City Commission from 1991 to 1994 and has been mayor since 1998. He was president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce and has served on the Tarpon Springs Senior Services Advisory Council, the Rotary Club board of directors, the Boys and Girls Club and other community organizations. He is married and has three grown children.

Assets: Home, office, savings.

Liabilities: Mortgages on home and office.

Income: Salaries as chiropractor and mayor.

Costa Vatikiotis

Age: 52

Background: Vatikiotis was born in Tampa and has degrees from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Florida State University and St. Petersburg Junior College. He was city manager of and city engineer in Tarpon Springs from 1994 to 1998. He also has worked for ABR Information Services and the Center for Naval Analyses and as a commissioned officer in the Navy. Currently, he is an engineer in private practice. He is a member of the Tarpon Springs Historical Society, Friends of the Library and Sigma Xi, a scientific research society. He is a first-time candidate. He is married and has three children.

Assets: House, mutual funds.

Liabilities: Mortgage.

Income: From his work as an engineer in private practice.

CITY COMMISSION

Commissioners serve three-year terms and are paid $8,000 a year.

SEAT 3

Karen Brayboy

Age: 44

Background: Brayboy was born in Raleigh, N.C., and grew up in Plant City. She has a degree in special education from East Carolina University. She operates investment and employee benefits companies in Tarpon Springs. She is a member of the Whole Child Board and the steering committee for the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, and she is the chair of the Rotary Youth Trust Fund. She previously served on the City Commission from 1994 to 1999 and left because of term limits. She is married and has a grown son.

Assets: Home, condominium, businesses, profit-sharing account, personal investments.

Liabilities: Mortgages.

Income: Operation of two companies.

Spanos Harding

Age: 37

Background: Harding was born in Tarpon Springs and graduated from Tarpon Springs High School. He runs a propane gas business and a drywall and steel-framing company. He made unsuccessful runs for the City Commission in 1989 and for mayor in 1998. He is a member of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. He is married and has two young children.

Assets: House, stocks, bank account.

Liabilities: Mortgage.

Income: Ownership of Harding & Co. Enterprises.

SEAT 4

Beverley Billiris

Age: 53

Background: Billiris was born in Toronto and earned degrees from St. Petersburg Junior College, the University of South Florida and Nova University. She has worked as an accounting clerk and a teacher. Currently, she is involved in several businesses, including a sponge importing-exporting business, a tour boat company, a gift shop and a tour company. She has been involved with the Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, Citizens Alliance for Progress, Leadership Pinellas, several Florida League of Cities boards and other organizations. She is married to sponge merchant George Billiris.

Assets: Home, stocks, mutual fund, commercial property.

Liabilities: Mortgage, business loans.

Income: From ownership of various businesses.

Joseph Pisani

Age: 37

Background: Pisani was born in New York and was in the Army. He attended Saint Leo College and the Florida National Guard Military Academy. He has worked in the vending business and now owns Trendsetters Hair Salon on N Pinellas Avenue. He is a local chairman of the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life. This is his first run for political office. He is single.

Assets: Condominium, hair salon.

Liabilities: Mortgage.

Income: Ownership of hair salon.

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