TARPON SPRINGS — Morgan Group, the developer applying to build a long-debated apartment complex along the Anclote River, is accusing City Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis of “extreme bias” against the project and demanding that he recuse himself from Tuesday’s hearing on the application.
Days before a Sept. 20 Planning and Zoning Board hearing on the project, Vatikiotis sent highlighted sections of the city’s comprehensive plan to three members of the board, which Morgan Group attorney Ed Armstrong said he discovered through a public records request to the city.
In a letter to Vatikiotis and city officials on Thursday, Armstrong noted that two planning board members who opposed the project at the Sept. 20 hearing referenced those highlighted portions in their rationale. After the planning board voted 6-1 to recommend the commission deny the project, Vatikiotis sent a text to one member stating “well done and thoughtful” with a thumbs-up emoji.
Armstrong said the communications show “a textbook case of bias” and that Vatikiotis’ participation in the commission’s vote on Tuesday would prevent Morgan Group from having a fair hearing.
“He’s already judged the case, he’s made up his mind,” Armstrong told the Tampa Bay Times.
Vatikiotis told the Times that he does not intend to recuse himself from Tuesday’s hearing because he does not believe his communications showed bias. State law requires officials to recuse themselves when there is a conflict of interest, which Vatikiotis said is not the case here.
He said prior to the Sept. 20 meeting, planning and zoning board members asked him which sections of the city’s comprehensive plan related to traffic issues. Vatikiotis said he forwarded those sections and expressed “nothing that suggested how they should view” the project.
The commissioner described Morgan Group’s demand he recuse himself as “a maneuver to set up for an appeal if the decision doesn’t go the way of the applicant.”
City attorney Tom Trask did not respond to a voicemail or email from the Times asking whether he believes Vatikiotis should recuse himself or whether the communication was appropriate.
Morgan Group, a Houston company, initially applied last year to build the 404 luxury apartments on a 74-acre vacant property on the east side of U.S. 19 N along the Anclote River. The planning and zoning board voted 4-1 in November to recommend approval of the project. The proposal cleared preliminary approval by Tarpon Springs commissioners in a 3-1 vote in January, with Vatikiotis in opposition, and was on track for a final hearing.
In February, the Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs nonprofit sued the city and Morgan Group, alleging that conditions for a second access point into the proposed complex that were added the day of the January vote robbed residents of due process.
A few months later, the developer submitted a new application with the second access point, restarting the review process. When the application went before the planning and zoning board a second time on Sept. 20, board members who had not previously raised objections cited concerns about safety on U.S. 19 N.
The hearings are quasi-judicial, meaning board members are under oath and must base their decisions on compatibility with city code rather than subjective analysis.
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City policy also requires board members disclose communications they’ve had about the project to assure transparency and “maintain public confidence in the integrity of public hearings,” Armstrong wrote in his letter.
None of the three planning board members who had communicated with Vatikiotis disclosed that at the Sept. 20 meeting.
Planning board member Michael Kouskoutis stated that he had received “a few emails from people I didn’t actually know” but that he did not disclose a text he got from Vatikiotis the morning of the meeting.
In the text, Vatikiotis forwarded an answer he had received from city staff about how the state had not yet approved the second entrance into the apartment complex. Kouskoutis could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Board member John Koulianos said he contacted Vatikiotis before the planning and zoning meeting to obtain sections of the comprehensive plan related to traffic. He said he was not aware he was required to disclose the names of people he spoke to, but said Vatikiotis in no way swayed his vote.
“As God is my witness he never tried to influence me one way or another,” Koulianos said.
Board chair Marlin Seamon said he also asked Vatikiotis for comprehensive plan sections and was not aware that communication with an elected official needed to be disclosed at quasi-judicial hearings.
Even if board members had disclosed the communications, Armstrong says Vatikiotis should still recuse himself.
“The point was that he exercised undue influence on planning and zoning to oppose the project, which evidences his bias,” Armstrong said.
But Vatikiotis said nothing he sent was “explanatory in nature,” proving he was sharing facts, not trying to sway opinions. Vatikiotis said he sent the congratulatory text to Kouskoutis because of the way he presented his argument, not how he voted.
“Residents are owed an explanation of yes or no, why you decided that,” he said, “and the planning and zoning board did just that.”