TARPON SPRINGS — The Tarpon Springs City Commission recently voted to move forward with the purchase of a piece of property that would provide a much-needed boat ramp and additional wet slips along the Anclote River across from the Sponge Docks.

But the decision to buy the M&M Marina for $1.55 million will ultimately be up to the voters.

Commissioners voted 3-1 on June 23 in favor of purchasing the 1.26-acre property at 0 Island Ave., meaning the item will be put to a referendum vote in the Nov. 3 election, a point that was emphasized by Mayor Chris Alahouzos.

“By approving this tonight we’re giving the citizens of Tarpon Springs the opportunity to make the final decision,” Alahouzos said, noting the parcel is a “multi-use property that’s going to be very beneficial to the people of Tarpon Springs.”

Indeed, there’s little question the marina, which in addition to the boat launch contains 37 wet slips as well as a mini-park, would provide crucial amenities for a community that has the most waterfront area in Pinellas County. The city currently has a small marina on Dodecanese Boulevard and a boat ramp at Craig Park that is too small to launch many modern vessels, according to officials.

However, the vote was not unanimous as Commissioner Connor Donovan opposed the purchase because of a perceived conflict of interest regarding fellow Commissioner Townsend Tarapani, who is the listing agent for the property.

“I don’t believe that the board should make a decision that is going to directly result in financial gain for any commissioner,” Donovan said. “As leaders we cannot put ourselves in positions to take from the community we serve, and when our decisions provide financial gain to any commissioner, we are eroding the trust that our residents put in us.”

Alahouzos said he asked City Attorney Tom Trask to research the issue and Trask stated he found there would be no ethical or legal violations as long as Tarapani recused himself from voting on the item.

“I feel absolutely comfortable that there is no voting conflict and there will be no violation of the ethics laws under Chapter 112 of the Florida statutes if, in fact, Mr. Tarapani discloses the possible conflict, abstains from voting and not participating in the discussion relative to the purchase of this particular property,” Trask said. Tarapani was absent from the meeting.

Despite the legal assurances Donovan held firm on his stance.

“Ethics law state that nothing’s going on here,” he said, “but what we’re implying is because ethics laws exist in the state of Florida nothing unethical ever happens in the state of Florida, which I think is frankly ridiculous.

“I think just because the law is on record doesn’t make it right.”

The subject drew impassioned responses on both sides from members of the public.

“Commissioner Donovan, the Board of Commissioners is made up of five elected citizens,” former mayor Anita Protos said in an email that was read by the City Clerk. “You impugn and insult the BOC by inferring they somehow do not have the cognitive ability to analyze and determine whether a project is in the best intertest of the city. … What you propose is to deny the residents the right to participate in their charter given right and responsibility.”

Protos went on to say that “never in 40-plus years of being involved in the community and local politics have I ever seen such a gross and inappropriate attempt to smear a fellow commissioner as you have done with Mr. Tarapani,” and she called for Donovan to write a formal letter of apology to his colleague.

On the other side, Panagiotis Koulias called in to praise Donovan for “sticking up for a lot of citizens,” stating, “Many Tarponites and I don’t find it acceptable that the broker selling agent on the property is a commissioner on this board. We Tarponites will never approve of a board member making a personal gain off the Tarpon taxpayers. You can’t serve the Tarpon taxpayers for your personal gain.”

Afterward, Alahouzos and Tarapani commented on the subject.

“There was a question about a conflict of interest, and I spoke to the city attorney to send an explanation in writing and at the meeting so it would be on the record and everyone understands,” the mayor said by phone a few days later. “But I think it’s a good deal because it’s a marina that can be used immediately as well as a boat ramp and a mini-park, and ultimately it’s going to be the voters’ decision to buy or not to buy the property.”

When contacted for comment Tarapani, who was vacationing with family, said “the city attorney has advised me to take a recusal position and not say anything further, and I am going to follow his advice.”

Photos courtesy of TRAVIS MEISMAN

Commissioners voted 3-1 on June 23 in favor of purchasing the 1.26-acre property at 0 Island Ave., meaning the item will be put to a referendum vote in the Nov. 3 election, a point that was emphasized by Mayor Chris Alahouzos.