TARPON SPRINGS — The Board of Commissioners has formally reprimanded Commissioner Jacob Karr for misuse of public office, claiming that he used his position to help a city resident in a private civil dispute with a building contractor.
The commission at its June 14 meeting passed a resolution reprimanding Karr for “acting inconsistent to the standards for public officers” as prescribed in state law, removed him from intergovernmental boards — including the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council — and sent a complaint to the Florida Commission on Ethics to evaluate his actions.
The board resolution passed with a 4-1 vote, with Karr voting no.
According to city documents, a Tarpon Springs resident contacted Karr to help her in a dispute over payment to a contractor that had performed restoration work on her home, which was damaged by fire. He sent an email to the contractor asking the company to refund $34,000 to the resident and said the amount could be over $70,000. He used his city email and signed off as “Tarpon Springs City Commissioner Seat 1.”
The lawyer representing the contractor then contacted Tarpon Springs officials by email on April 27, inquiring why Karr was using government resources in a private contract dispute unrelated to city business, and said Karr’s actions left the city open to a defamation lawsuit.
Karr, a financial planning office manager, defended his actions, saying he was helping a city resident who called him for help. Karr, in his second term, also said he did not know it was unethical to use his city email to correspond with the resident and the contractor, and said he hadn’t personally benefited from his actions.
Reading from a two-page statement sent to the mayor and commission, Karr said he wasn’t “demanding or flexing in any way trying to misuse my power provided to me from the residents of Tarpon Springs.”
“I would never put myself or my family or the city of Tarpon Springs intentionally at risk for any lawsuit,” Karr said.
In his comments, Karr did not apologize for actions, saying he was working to help a city resident and not seeking personal gain.
However, other commission members interpreted Karr’s action differently, claiming he abused his office and brought shame to the commission by representing himself as a Tarpon Springs city commissioner in trying to broker a financial settlement between the resident and the contractor.
In his opening comments addressing the incident, Mayor Costa Vatikiotis said the city had not been copied on any of the correspondence between Karr and the resident, contractor or the company’s lawyer.
Vatikiotis said Karr had also emailed a consumer advocate TV reporter on emails concerning the contractor dispute.
Commissioners Michael Eisner, Panagiotis Koulias and Vice Mayor Craig Lunt each asked him to resign.
“You ran the risk of getting into a lawsuit against the city,” Eisner said. “Unfortunately, you showed no integrity for your fellow commissioners, not for our time, or for our integrity.”
Eisner also referred back to the city’s March election, where Karr had not supported Eisner, Koulias or Lunt.
He called it a blessing that Karr didn’t support the three, “because we are dedicated and we have true integrity and wouldn’t do such a thing.”
Lunt said Karr’s actions had hurt both the board’s reputation and left it open to a lawsuit.
“If I were in your shoes, I would accept the responsibility and resign,” Lunt said. “I think that you will continue to bring embarrassment to this board.”
Koulias asked Karr whether this incident was “just the tip of the iceberg? Have you ever done this before in the past five years that you have served on the board?”
Karr replied, “No.”
Vatikiotis in his response did not directly criticize Karr directly, but referred to the damage done to the city’s credibility.
“I was hoping to hear an apology from someone tonight,” Vatikiotis said. “I guess this is what mayors do, but I want to apologize to the residents of Tarpon Springs. This is basically about your city government. And you don’t deserve this.”
Public comment on Karr’s actions were split.
Chris Hrabovsky called Karr “a walking, talking liability issue for the city who needs to be removed.”
Peter Dalacos, activist and former city official, asked Karr why he chose to use his city commissioner’s position to contact a private company with no business with the city.
“Part of the reason why this board was elected is because citizens were tired of the ‘old boy network,’” Dalacos said. “For you (Karr) to say that by using your city I.D. you weren’t influencing, then why didn’t you write to the contractor using your own address as Jacob Karr?”
Former Tarpon Springs Mayor Anita Protos told the commission that the matter should be handled carefully by Trask to avoid a possible state grand jury investigation.
Protos referred to the 1987 grand jury criminal investigation of city officials including then-Mayor Tom Koulianos.
“My concern tonight is that Tarpon Springs has been watched very closely, and we don’t want the state attorney to come back in here and have these problems,” Protos said. “Back then, we almost lost our (city) charter.”
One resident took the commission to task for what she called “personal, speculative attacks against a fellow commissioner.”
“These comments are totally unwarranted, and especially the tone of some of them are totally disrespectful, and we don’t like to hear that talk,” said Julie Wade. “Some of you commissioners have your own issues.”