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Politicos put council results in Tolle terms

Ed Tolle wears the countenance of a man who has never known anything but success, which is pretty much the script of his life since arriving in this former fishing village a half century ago.

"I love this city," the 78-year-old businessman says. "Maybe I am more respected than most people, but I earned it."

Last Tuesday, from the back of his Ford Explorer parked outside City Hall, Tolle watched that respect at work.

"Did you do it, Gary?" he asked one man who had just voted in the city election. "Yeah, I did it. I got yours in there."

It is a formula that has worked many times before. Tolle contacts his friends and associates, informs them who he is backing for City Council and politely suggests they do the same.

Given low voter turnouts, manipulating the outcome may not be as hard as it seems. Tolle claims to know most of the residents in this city of 3,500.

His political wins are legendary. When he could not get anyone to run against Ron Kitchen in 1997, Tolle did so himself, crushing his opponent by 290 votes.

When three council members fired City Manager Russ Kreager in 1999, Tolle sought revenge. All three were defeated by Tolle-backed candidates.

"They're better off with me for them than against them," Tolle said, relishing that coup in an interview a few days before this year's election.

But this time, Team Tolle lost. John Kendall and Kitty Ebert defeated incumbents Mike Gudis and Ray Wallace by slim margins, but their victories led to strong words about Tolle.

"I seriously believe that he lost his grip," said Chris Lloyd, one of the architects of the so-called reform movement. "And that he will never recover."

Alex Ilnyckyj, a former council member that Tolle helped defeat, pronounced "Boss Hogg" dead.

"We did something that people thought was impossible," Kendall said. "This is the beginning of a new era."

Implicit in such statements is the assertion that the old era was one in which government worked to serve the powerful few, a good old boy network.

"You've basically got two factions," said former City Manager Roger Krieger. "Ed Tolle represents the old established city and then you've got the faction with Ebert and that bunch who represent the new people. For some reason in Crystal River, there is no compromise; there is no middle road."

One of the more notable stories in this city, where politics is a blood sport, involves Krieger. He quit the day after City Council elections in 1995, realizing the new council had painted him as a Tolle supporter.

The opposite happened to City Manager David Sallee, who was fired earlier this year. Sallee made it clear that Tolle was not welcome to traipse through City Hall, and many of Sallee's supporters believe that was the kiss of death.

To be sure, there are two distinct views of Ed Tolle. One is of the easygoing patriarch, a "Man About Town," as the Citrus County Chronicle dubbed him in a profile last week, part of a series on the five most influential people in the county.

The other is Tolle as kingmaker, a man who has used his connections for financial gain. The kind of guy who, if crossed, could sic the police on you or meddle with your property holdings. Tolle was the county property appraiser from 1966 to 1976 and now runs a successful real estate business.

Critics point to zoning decisions and money the city has spent improving the central business district, where the Tolle family owns sizable property.

For the most part, though, they rarely speak about Tolle on the record, other than making general statements about his power or observations about him spending an unusual amount of time at City Hall.

Tolle does not outright deny his role as the common denominator in Crystal River politics and has no plans to fade away. "I don't feel defeated in any way," he said.

But he says his critics are wrong when they assert he has used his influence irresponsibly. Perhaps, he adds, his detractors are jealous of his wealth.

"I have no hidden agenda," he said. "Politics are really nasty in this little town. I don't even need to put up with it, but I do because I'm interested in the future of the city."

And if that future includes his own businesses, that's good, he says. As he prospers, so does the city, in the way of an expanded tax base.

He has spent thousands, for example, helping to create Heritage Village, a collection of shops on Citrus Avenue, not far from City Hall. He has built a supermarket and homes for the middle class.

Getting Tolle to speak candidly about his political calculations is not easy. He usually plays down his role to a level that borders on the insignificant.

"I'm just a guy who pulls on his pants like everybody else and votes," he said during one interview.

That same humble outlook emerges when asked about the mark he has left on Crystal River. "I don't care about my legacy," he said. "My children love me. My wife loves me. My grandchildren love me. That's my legacy."