TARPON SPRINGS — For more than a year, a small group of Tarpon residents has used the public comments portion of the Board of Commissioners meetings and other open forums to express their displeasure with the way the mayor, commissioners and other officials have been running the city.
Fueled by a controversial vote over the winter that paved the way for a 400-unit apartment complex to be built on 74 acres of vacant land along the Anclote River, some engaged citizens turned to props, including signs and feathers, posterboards and religious robes, along with Bible verses, curses and other means of self-expression, to get their points across about the Anclote Harbors vote and myriad other BOC rulings.
Desperate to find a way to shorten meetings that have routinely stretched more than five hours since the start of the pandemic and to quell some of the tactics that often turn the public comments into public theater, the BOC decided to rewrite some of its Rules of Procedures, first deleting them from the city’s Code of Ordinances and then putting them in resolution form, where they are subject to annual review.
“Most cities don’t have the Rules of Procedure in their code book,” City Attorney Tom Trask explained during the item’s second and final reading on Tuesday, July 27. “They’re always done by resolution.”
Among the proposed changes, which include seating arrangement on the dais, meeting start times and other formalities, the Preservation of Order and Decorum for public comments drew the most attention.
According to Section 8 of Resolution 2021-22, members of the public may no longer donate two minutes of speaking time to another speaker, and “no speaker shall have the right to address the Board of Commissioners for more than four minutes on any particular item.” Section 8b goes on to state, “any person making personal, impertinent or slanderous remarks, or who shall become boisterous while addressing the city Commission may be requested to leave the meeting and…may be barred from attendance at that meeting.”
That section was quickly tested when Annie Samarkos, owner of the 1910 Inn and an outspoken opponent of the Anclote Harbors project, ejected herself from the meeting after Mayor Chris Alahouzos warned her a second time about clapping after public comments.
“I knew by clapping (TSPD) Chief (Jeffrey) Young would be told to take me out of there, so I left before he had to,” Samarkos said by phone the next day, noting she went to high school with Young and “knew he felt bad” about having to kick her out.
The incident, which earned a stiff rebuke from 2022 commission candidate Mike Eisner, illustrated both the heightened tensions in the city as well as the strong ties that bind those on each side of the fence in what has become an ongoing debate about the right to free speech in Tarpon Springs.
“Just to clarify, we’re not stifling public comment,” Vice Mayor Jacob Karr said when it came time for the commission comments, adding, “Public comment is welcome throughout the meeting still. You have four minutes at the beginning of the meeting to come talk about anything you want, and you have four minutes for each additional item to talk about that specific item.”
Indeed, Trask, whose firm represents nine Pinellas County municipalities, said the allotted time was in line with what surrounding communities allow, including Dunedin (3 minutes), Oldsmar (5 minutes) and Safety Harbor (3 minutes).
Karr then asked how many of the communities his firm represents read emails into the record during meetings and Trask said none. One of the sticking points in Tarpon has been the suspension of phone calls and email readings during meetings, temporary policies that were enacted under state of emergency rules during the height of the pandemic that every individual community has since dropped.
“I think this is a great cleanup,” Karr said. “At the end of the day I hope it’s going to help streamline the public comment and some individuals who have been taking advantage of the system, I would say, for quite some time to prolong hearing themselves speak over the past six to eight months.”
Of the five local lawmakers only Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis spoke against the new measures.
“My point is they’ve worked for a long time, and we’re changing them,” Vatikiotis said after learning the last time the Code of Ordinances was revised was in the 1980s, adding he’s not supporting the new rules.
Ultimately the commission voted 4-1 in favor of the new resolution, with Vatikiotis voting no.
Afterward, the mayor spoke about the new rules.
“The Rules of Procedure haven’t been updated since the ’80s, so it was time to update them,” Alahouzos said by phone. “I’m sure there was a good reason at the time to do these things, like allowing residents to borrow time, but it wasn’t working out. Four minutes should be enough time for anyone to get their point across on an item, and they have multiple opportunities to do so. But some of them were taking advantage, using it to campaign and repeating their points, so it was time to change, and I think it’s definitely going to help speed the meetings up.”
Outside the City Hall auditorium, former commissioner and outspoken community activist Peter Dalacos said he was disappointed with the commission’s decision, again decrying the suppression of free speech. When reminded that Tarpon residents have as much or more time to talk per meeting than other county community, Dalacos, who contributed more than 23 minutes of comments that evening, replied, “We’re not like Safety Harbor and Oldsmar. This is Tarpon Springs, and we do things differently up here.”