Tarpon Springs is heading for a critical election, with four open commission seats

TARPON SPRINGS — No matter how residents vote in the March 15 election, big changes will happen at City Hall.

Four of the five seats on the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners are up for grabs and two candidates are running for each seat. Mayor Chris Alahouzos will step down due to term limits, and Commissioners Connor Donovan and Townsend Tarapani are not seeking second terms. Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis leaves his seat a year early to run for mayor.

This coastal town with a rich Greek heritage and population of around 25,000 is grappling with many of the same challenges as other municipalities in Pinellas County: pressures of growth and development, threats of climate change and maintaining the quality of life of residents through tourism.

But a controversial apartment complex on a green space along the Anclote River that commissioners approved 3-1 last year has sparked community activism and outrage. Vatikiotis voted no; Tarapani recused himself due to a dispute.

In a response to questionnaires from the Tampa Bay Weatherall eight candidates lamented the political climate in Tarpon Springs, with many referring to the debates that took place at meetings over the Anclote River project.

“In a word: toxic,” mayoral candidate Robin Saenger said of local politics. “Toxic national political discourse that demonizes anyone who disagrees with their beliefs has no place in non-partisan local governance.”

The mayoral race

Tarpon Springs mayoral candidates Robin Saenger, left, and Costa Vatikiotis. [ Saenger/Vatikiotis campaigns ]

Vatikiotis, 73, a former municipal engineer and city manager of Tarpon Springs in the 1990s, said he worried the town was becoming overbuilt. He wants to manage development to avoid overcrowding and worsening traffic and to preserve open space. It seeks to update strategic and comprehensive plans every three years and increase citizen participation in decision-making.

“Decision-making is often made without a clear direction or vision in mind,” he said. “When there are no plans or priorities to refer to and community awareness is lacking, ideas and decisions are largely based on the personal preferences of Commissioners.”

Robin Saenger, 68, an artist who served on the commission from 2005 to 2011, said her goals were to protect the natural environment, foster unity within the community and preserve the “atmosphere of small town” of the city.

In 2010, she founded Peace4Tarpon, which helps communities address issues such as domestic violence and homelessness by understanding unresolved childhood trauma.

She said that if the city had owned the Anclote property, she would have argued for it to be preserved. But because it was in private hands, she said the apartment complex was a much less intense development than the Walmart supercentre that was proposed for the site more than 15 years ago.

Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives

Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives

Subscribe to our free How They Lived newsletter

You’ll have a memory of the Tampa Bay residents we’ve lost, including heartwarming and fun details about their lives, every Tuesday.

You are all registered!

Want more of our free weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s start.

Explore all your options

She said the issue was “a great example of the critical importance of preserving land, protecting our natural environment and enabling growth that contributes to a sustainable future for us.”

Both candidates note climate change as one of the most significant issues facing Tarpon Springs in the near term.

Vatikiotis said he wanted to come up with a plan to protect streets and sidewalks from flooding. He said the commission should strengthen policies to discourage development in high-risk coastal areas.

Saenger has worked since 2019 on the city’s sustainability committee, an effort that led the city to budget money for a sustainability coordinator.

Seat 2

Lisa Malamatos Benitez, left, and Craig Lunt are candidates for Seat 2 of the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners.
Lisa Malamatos Benitez, left, and Craig Lunt are candidates for Seat 2 of the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners. [ Benitez/Lunt campaigns ]

Seat 2 candidates Lisa Malamatos Benitez and Craig Lunt share some priorities. Both note financial responsibility and the need to improve infrastructure as two main concerns.

But their outlook on the environment sets them apart. Lunt said flooding is one of the biggest problems facing Tarpon Springs and the city needs to do more to repair and replace levees to help mitigate impacts on roads.

“We also have to be very strict about any new coastal and wetland development,” said Lunt, 68, a cybersecurity sales and technology consultant.

Benitez said “the city is already taking steps to try to mitigate or prepare as much as possible for what is called climate change.”

Benitez, 65, a retired psychiatry admissions director, said her goals as commissioner would be to unite the community, control taxes, grow the reserve fund and maintain infrastructure.

Lunt said he will work to ensure citizens have a say in how the city spends its share of $12.8 million in U.S. bailout funds. He is also concerned about giving residents a voice on the Disston Avenue Corridor Extension, which could impact two residential areas.

Seat 3

Michael Eisner, left, and George Koulianos are candidates for Seat 3 of the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners.
Michael Eisner, left, and George Koulianos are candidates for Seat 3 of the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners. [ Eisner/Koulianos campaigns ]

Michael Eisner’s truck license plate reads “Ask Mike” because the retiree said he likes to solve problems. He said he worked in radio management; Sales; pest control management; and flood and mold remediation before retiring to Florida in 2013.

Eisner served on the city’s board of adjustment for six years and said the development commission’s handling of the Anclote River is one of the issues that prompted him to run for office. He sees the biggest problems facing Tarpon Springs as flooding, homelessness and lack of city leadership.

If elected, Eisner, 67, said he would implement the comprehensive five-year plan, hire a full-time grants writer and “really deal with our flood issues.”

George Koulianos, 24, graduated last year with a degree in international studies from the University of South Florida. He said he spent “a few months” working for global security consultancy SMI Consultancy and is now working full-time on his campaign.

Koulianos has developed an economic strategy with local businesses called Invest in Tarpon Plan. He is launching an advertising campaign to increase tourism and help attract more local businesses. It also calls for expanding events citywide to attract more traffic to existing businesses.

Koulianos said his goals would be to preserve the city’s heritage and culture while supporting sustainable growth and fiscal responsibility.

Seat 4

Panagiotis "rock" Koulias, left, and Jacqueline Turner are running for Seat 4 of the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners.
Panagiotis “Peter” Koulias, left, and Jacqueline Turner are running for Seat 4 of the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners. [ Koulias/Turner campaigns ]

Panagiotis “Peter” Koulias said the lack of long-term planning in the Tarpon Springs government prompted him to run for office. He has been an observer at City Hall for about two years, often addressing the commissioners with animated comments. He called elected officials corrupt over the Anclote River project, prompting Vice Mayor Jacob Karr to condemn the allegations as false.

Koulias, 34, owns an employment agency and a workers’ compensation consulting firm in his hometown. His platform calls for a nationwide search for a new city manager to lead long-term planning and sustainability. He said infrastructure needs to be improved to deal with flooding and public services.

“We are at a critical time in our city’s history that demands leadership and a vision for the future,” he said. “We need more vocal leaders who put people before politics and have the Tarponites’ day-to-day interests in mind.”

As an account manager at BayCare Behavioral Health, Jacqui Turner, 47, connects businesses and other organizations with mental health care services and educational programs. She has spent nearly two decades in higher education administration.

Turner wants to direct “smart growth” by pushing for the redevelopment of existing properties instead of “cleaning up what little green space is left in our community.”

She said the city should invest in shoreline stabilization through practices such as living shorelines and prioritizing stormwater infrastructure needs.

She wants to use the “wealth of talented residents” to help advance the city’s economic development efforts in the same way that members of public art and sustainability committees provide advice in their fields.

“I have a passion for our town and believe we have many opportunities to foster thoughtful change while honoring Tarpon Springs’ unique heritage and traditions,” Turner said.

• • •

March 15 elections in Pinellas County

There is no in-person early voting for municipal elections. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on March 15.

Residents can vote by mail. Voters can request an absentee ballot through March 5 by visiting VotePinellas.gov, calling 727-464-VOTE, or emailing [email protected]

Voters should allow at least one week for their ballot to be mailed back to the Elections Office Supervisor. Mail-in ballots can be dropped off at any of the three election offices during normal business hours before or on election day.

These cities will have elected offices and/or charter changes on their ballots: Belleair, Belleair Beach, Belleair Bluffs, Clearwater, Madeira Beach, Oldsmar, Redington Beach, Redington Shores, St. Pete Beach, Tarpon Springs.

Aurora J. William