TARPON SPRINGS – A well-executed political forum should keep the candidates on track and the audience in check while the moderator asks questions designed to invoke informative responses.
The Tarpon Springs 2019 candidate forum, staged by the League of Women Voters of North Pinellas County on Jan. 15, did just that, according to several guests who packed the City Hall auditorium.
During the 90-minute election forum, the two mayoral candidates, incumbent Mayor Chris Alahouzos and former Mayor David Archie, and the two Seat 3 opponents, incumbent Susan Miccio-Kikta and newcomer Connor Donovan, responded to 20 audience submitted questions with answers that highlighted their positions on topical subjects including economic development, sustainability, homelessness, infrastructure and beautification projects and environmental concerns.
“I thought there were a lot of questions and they were very intelligent. It shows people are interested and care about this town,” Lyn Dalzell, who helped organize the event, said. “I think we covered a lot of topics and the candidates weren’t frivolous with their responses. There were a lot of solid answers.”
Indeed, despite the one-minute time limit to reply the roundtable like format led to rapid fire, and often pointed, responses.
In his opening remarks, Alahouzos detailed some of his accomplishments as mayor before ending by saying, “my opponent is like most of our recent mayors, treating the job as part time. But not me. I work full time for you.”
Archie, who served two consecutive terms as mayor between 2010 2016 and was barred by term limits in the city charter from seeking a third, responded by stating he was running again because he is passionate about Tarpon Springs and wants “the opportunity to impact the future” of the city.
“The decisions the commission make can determine the direction of the city, and I want to be a part of that,” he said. “Each decision must be made objectively and fairly, considering what’s best for all of the citizens.”
As soon as the second question was asked it became clear that the issue of development, specifically the decision by the commission to purchase the old Sun Bay Motel property, near Spring Bayou, last spring for $862,000, sharply divided the candidates.
Alahouzos, who voted in favor of the purchase, defended the decision by noting that the motel was a magnet for vagrancy, crime and drug abuse around in West Tarpon Avenue area.
“The motel was involved in drug dealings, prostitution and murder,” he said. “We now have an area that’s free from crime and is ready to be developed to bring new business to Tarpon Springs.”
Archie, however, decried the deal.
“Almost a million dollars was spent on a 50 (foot)-by-100 (foot) parcel of land that can’t really be used for anything? No, I think it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said. “It was golden parachute for somebody who was doing wrong … and I don’t believe you should reward people that are breaking the laws of Tarpon Springs by giving them an exorbitant amount of money.”
The money used to buy the Sun Bay could’ve been used for the proposed community pool, which fell through last summer due to budgetary constraints, Archie said.
Kikta, who voted against the sale at the time, reiterated her position.
“I honestly believe if we waited another six months or so, we could’ve shut them down, and if not, there’s another option — we could’ve possibly put this for referendum vote for the taxpayers to decide,” she said. “But spending a million dollars on this property I think is not good fiscal management.”
Another subject that drew disparate responses was the issue of sustainability and how the city is responding to predictions of rising sea levels caused by global climate change.
Donovan, a public policy major who aspires to be a city manager, didn’t mince words about the city’s commitment to sustainability.
“It’s sad to say, but if we started an environmental sustainability committee tomorrow, we’d still be one of the last cities in Pinellas County to get one,” he said. “I think if you’re afraid of citizen engagement on environmental issues, then you have no business being up here. I think it starts by giving citizens a formal voice, in the form of an environmental committee, and then go from there.”
Kikta, who has pushed several sustainability and green initiatives, said she supported the creation of a sustainability coalition. Archie agreed, noting he believed the city “has been weak on sustainability.”
Alahouzos admitted “flooding is definitely a problem here in Tarpon Springs … for many, many years,” and he touted the recent purchase of spoil site properties and stormwater pipe check values, as well as the proposal to install a lift station under the lowest point of the Sponge Docks, as evidence of the city’s commitment to addressing the issue. “We take it very seriously,” he said.”
After the event rapidly reached the 90-minute mark, several attendees shared their thoughts about the forum.
“You always come into these things open minded, and the (candidates) can change your mind based on their responses,” Tarpon resident Melissa Vigil said. “I researched the candidates beforehand, so this emphasized the direction I want to go in is the right one for me.”
Commissioner Rea Sieber said she was impressed with how many people attended.
“I think it’s a good sign there’s such an interest in local government,” Sieber said. “And I was impressed with the questions. They helped you get to know the candidate’s opinions.”
Mary Peters, a longtime city resident, and candidate forum veteran, agreed.
“I thought it went very well, it was very well organized by the League of Women Voters, very smooth,” Peters said. “I think all the candidates did a good job. It helped clarify their points and opinions and hopefully it will help clarify things for the voters, too.”
To watch a video of the 2019 Tarpon Springs candidate forum, visit the city of Tarpon Springs website, ctsfl.us.