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Tarpon Springs board votes to investigate city’s dealings with developer

Commissioners also move to replace City Manager Mark LeCouris as strife over the Anclote Harbor project intensifies.
 
Tarpon Springs Commissioner Mike Eisner reads from city emails about the Anclote Harbor project during a Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday that stretched into Wednesday.
Tarpon Springs Commissioner Mike Eisner reads from city emails about the Anclote Harbor project during a Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday that stretched into Wednesday. [ City of Tarpon Springs ]
Published Oct. 12, 2022|Updated Oct. 12, 2022

TARPON SPRINGS — The city’s Board of Commissioners voted early Wednesday to hire a special counsel to investigate City Hall and questioned the legality of staff discussions with the developer of a major apartment complex.

In a dramatic meeting that ended near 1 a.m., commissioners also voted unanimously to start the process of replacing City Manager Mark LeCouris, who they blamed in part for allowing communications with the developer to unfold as they did.

The vote to hire a special counsel was 3-1, with the majority consisting of commissioners elected in March who oppose their predecessors’ November 2021 approval of the 404-unit apartment complex on the Anclote River.

Commissioner Panagiotis Koulias said if the special counsel determines that “there’s nothing there,” then “I want a second one.”

Commissioners discussed more than 700 emails that Mayor Costa Vatikiotis received through a public records request showing that city staff began discussing the Anclote project with representatives of the Morgan Group in October 2017. That was three years before the Texas-based developer first submitted an application to the city in September 2020.

In February 2019, a previous Board of Commissioners approved ordinance changes that included giving developers more time to assemble their projects. But before the vote, LeCouris, then-City Attorney Tom Trask and then-planning director Heather Urwiller did not disclose publicly that the changes included language that Morgan Group attorney Ed Armstrong had written to facilitate the upcoming apartment application.

The project has not yet broken ground.

“Years and years of manipulation, years of intimidation, years of laying the foundation to ruin our city to make money for a few,” Commissioner Mike Eisner said after he spent an hour reading email exchanges between city staff and the Morgan Group to get them into the record.

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Armstrong said his involvement in crafting language for the ordinance changes was “proper and appropriate.”

“This decades-old ordinance did not take into account more complicated projects, so we suggested language to update the ordinance by lengthening certain performance timelines,” Armstrong said. “It’s not unusual for municipalities to work with the private sector on updates to codes and procedures.”

Trask submitted his law firm’s resignation in September, citing “baseless public attacks” after commissioners began questioning his billing practices for travel. In a statement Wednesday, Trask’s partner Jay Daigneault said the commissioners’ latest actions are an “attempt to find a scapegoat for decisions made on a project that has become a political liability.”

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“We are extraordinarily confident any fair investigation initiated by this city commission will result in our complete vindication and demonstrate the viciousness of the unfounded accusations that are being made against us,” Daigneault said. “Unfortunately, the city commission made clear it does not intend to conduct or accept a fair investigation, only one that will yield a predetermined result, and it will change investigators until it gets that result. That is not an investigation — it is a witch hunt.”

The issue further fractured a divided board. In addition to voting for the special counsel, commissioners appointed Vatikiotis to be a liaison for the search with the city’s purchasing director.

Commissioner Jacob Karr voted no, stating the administrative function is not appropriate for a mayor in a city manager form of government and would create complications with Florida’s open meetings law.

The board also made Vatikiotis the liaison for the process of hiring a search firm for a new city manager, although the selection will come back to the commissioners for a vote. In the buildup to the tension that burst into view Tuesday night, LeCouris had allocated $45,000 for the search during budget discussions this summer.

During the meeting, Karr asked LeCouris to explain the history of his discussions with the Morgan Group and what kind of staff communications with developers are considered standard practice. LeCouris declined. He did not respond Wednesday to email questions from the Times.

Vatikiotis presented a slide show alleging that the ordinance changes helped Morgan Group by eliminating a 12-month deadline to obtain a building permit that would have run out next month. Armstrong responded in a statement that the project will not end up using the extended timelines in obtaining permits.

Koulias, the commissioner, also called for a recall of the board’s final vote approving the Anclote Harbor project.

“I’m not sure of criminal charges in a court of law, but these regular session city public meetings is the court of public opinion and this looks bad,” Koulias said.

Armstrong said Tuesday’s actions by the board majority were an improper attempt to invalidate the project’s approval. The project has been in litigation since November, when Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs sued the city and Morgan Group.

“This commission is continually attacking anyone involved in the Anclote Harbor project with half-truths and misstatements,” Armstrong said. “We are confident that we have acted ethically in all respects in our work on this project, and will continue to fight back against these baseless politically motivated attacks.”