TARPON SPRINGS — The metaphorical storm cloud that’s been hanging over City Hall for the past year dropped down and enveloped the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners last week when a special session to interview internal auditor candidates devolved into name-calling and finger-pointing between several city officials.
The fireworks that began two hours into the April 6 meeting were sparked by a series of emails between Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis and City Manager Mark LeCouris, which Commissioner Connor Donovan deemed “unprofessional.” The ensuing scene was the latest manifestation of the tension that’s been swirling around this commission since early 2020, which included Vatikiotis’ failed attempt to set a date for LeCouris to retire during what Mayor Chris Alahouzos called the “worst meeting ever” in November.
“I just wanted to address a couple of different emails that you’ve sent in the past to Mark. I feel more professionalism would’ve been necessary,” Donovan said to start his commission comments after the interviews were finished. He went on to cite examples of Vatikiotis being “disrespectful” to LeCouris and city staff in emails he sent on March 28, Jan. 25 and Dec. 1.
“It’s no secret you want Mark gone. That’s your opinion. I understand that,” Donovan, who at 23 years old was the youngest commissioner in Tarpon’s history when he was elected in 2019, told Vatikiotis. “But to send him emails reminding him that you want him gone just serves no purpose, in my opinion.”
After stating Donovan’s opinion was “fair” and noting the March email was sent only to LeCouris in an attempt to get him to address the status of several outstanding projects, Vatikiotis noted Donovan “wasn’t even born” when some of the issues began, and the former city manager doubled down on his stance regarding the man who currently holds the position.
“I think one of City Manager LeCouris’ biggest problems right now is he’s got no incentive to do a good job,” Vatikiotis said while citing several long-running projects that haven’t been completed. “We’ve been giving him a free ride, whether it’s the library, the cultural center, the City Hall. We keep seeing these buildings in a dilapidated state. … So, how do we allow our buildings to get to that position?”
At that point, Mayor Chris Alahouzos stepped in and attempted to defuse the situation by noting they are going to utilize a spreadsheet listing all the projects being worked on that will be available for residents and commissioners to view at any time. “I believe this process, which is already in place, can be beneficial to all of us,” Alahouzos said.
Vatikiotis said he thinks a “spreadsheet is fine but it’s going to take a lot more than that. It’s going to be something to hold the city manager accountable to do things when he says he’s going to do them and get them done. That’s the issue.”
When Vatikiotis reiterated Donovan “wasn’t even born when some of these things came up,” and called him naïve, the young commissioner quickly interjected, “That’s the unprofessionalism I’m talking about right there. I’m naïve, I wasn’t born yet. He’s attacking my age. It’s really ironic that this is coming from the same person talking about professionalism. He’s losing his cool, he’s talking about my age. You can criticize anyone you want but be more professional about it.”
The back and forth continued with LeCouris weighing in by stating some of the allegations Vatikiotis made in the emails were “absolute fabrications” that “affect the staff,” noting “they never happen face to face, only through the keyboard and again, it’s not productive.”
On that point they all agreed. However, the meeting eventually concluded with no real resolution in sight.
The next day, the key participants elaborated on the events of the previous night.
“I really don’t like these types of meetings, but sometimes they’re unavoidable,” Vatikiotis said by phone. “Perhaps now residents will realize things aren’t what they’re supposed to be, and things aren’t getting done. And if you don’t ask questions, nothing gets done.”
When asked how he felt about Donovan’s claims, Vatikiotis said he was “blindsided” by what he labeled a “political attack” and stated he was “disappointed in what happened last night. I don’t think I was treated fairly because I wasn’t given the courtesy to explain myself.”
Donovan, who recently announced he would not seek reelection in 2022, said he “provided three examples of unprofessional communications and (Vatikiotis) proved my point by raising his voice, pointing fingers and engaging in personal attacks. People who use personal attacks to defend themselves are their own worst enemies and he proved that last night,” before adding, “I don’t care what he says about me, but staff isn’t in a position to defend themselves and he’s using his position to abuse staff and I’m not going to stand for it.”
According to Mayor Alahouzos, the meeting represented another low point for the city’s government, but he’s hopeful commissioners can all put the latest incident behind them and work together moving forward.
“It wasn’t the best meeting, but we need to stay focused and moved forward,” he said, noting the behavior was “embarrassing” and calling for cooperation from all sides. “We’re here to serve the people of Tarpon Springs and we can’t do this is we’re fighting with each other. We’re all working for the same cause, so we need to find a way to compromise, come together and work together as a team. We don’t have to all like each other. We don’t have to socialize. But we’re obligated to work together because that’s what the residents elected us to do.”