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Incumbent, challenger square off in Gulfport

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


GULFPORT -- In Ward 4, where the city is primed to kick off its long-planned revitalization of 49th Street, the incumbent and his challenger are running the same race they ran two years ago.

Larry Cooper has been on the City Council since 1996 and first suggested focusing on 49th Street, a plan that is about to come to fruition. Ernest Stone, who has made several bids for elected office, including a run against Cooper for the Ward 4 seat two years ago, sat on the council-appointed committee that worked out the details of that plan.

Stone said he's pleased with his committee's work, but he also fears the council is taking too long to implement the plan.

"I think we can push just a little bit better, move it a little bit better," Stone said.

He has other ideas for the city, including hiring more police officers. Stone said he thinks Gulfport should hire eight new officers and increase its police presence in his ward, particularly on 49th Street, where he says business owners complain they do not see enough of Gulfport police.

He said the city could fund the officers by cutting back on its overtime budget for police officers. He also believes City Manager Bob Lee, who earns $97,000 in salary and annual bonus, makes too much money.

That could change soon in a plan supported by both Cooper and Stone. Gulfport recently purchased a property on 49th Street that it plans to use for, among other things, a police substation.

Other issues for Stone include Gulfport's absentee landlord problem and the fact that the city uses firefighters to handle code enforcement.

"I think it's time for a change," Stone said, explaining why he wants to replace Cooper on the council. Stone also thinks the current council does little to investigate city issues and is too agreeable.

Cooper refutes the suggestion that council members always agree with each other. He said each individual researches issues before council meetings, which explains why few questions are asked publicly.

Cooper is running again mostly because he wants to see the 49th Street redevelopment initiative put into effect.

"The perception you get when you come in from 49th Street from the north into Gulfport, is a perception that I think needs to be changed out there," Cooper said.

Besides the street itself, Cooper is excited about the drainage improvements at Tomlinson Park, the new amenities for that park and other highlights of the redevelopment plan.

Ultimately, he hopes to get better lighting, sidewalks and curbing in the neighborhoods surrounding 49th Street. Cooper said he is also proud of the additional fire hydrants and resurfaced streets completed in Ward 4 over the last two years.

Additionally, Cooper said he would like to see reclaimed water come to Gulfport, though that could only happen if the residents clearly supported it. Reclaimed water hookups are generally paid for with assessments charged to individual homeowners.

In their backgrounds, Stone and Cooper both have criminal records, though Stone's is more recent.

Stone's record dates back to 1975, when he was found guilty of driving under the influence. In 1980, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest without violence. He was sentenced to six months' probation and ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

He was also convicted of driving while intoxicated in 1985. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail, and at the time of the arrest, he was also charged with criminal mischief for kicking the window of a police cruiser.

He was also arrested in 1991 for improper exhibition of a firearm, possession of a shotgun without a serial number and disorderly intoxication. THe charges were dropped when he agreed to perform community service, give up his weapons and complete an alcohol abuse evaluation.

In 1995, when Stone was running for council, Gulfport police intervened in a domestic dispute between him and his wife. They arrested him and charged him with being a felon in possession of a firearm, although he had registered his gun with the city for years. The city clerk warned him that as a convicted felon, he could not hold office if he won.

The state attorney dropped the charge because Stone has never been convicted of a felony. But Stone already had lost the election with only about 5 percent of the vote. He said he looks at the incident now as evidence of police harassment.

Cooper was arrested in 1975 for possessing and selling marijuana to an undercover officer and sentenced to three years' probation after pleading no contest. He said his arrest stemmed from trouble dealings with his experiences in Vietnam.

* * *

The job

City Council members must reside in their wards, but they are elected by voters citywide. They serve two-year terms, receiving $600 a month. The council is the top legislative body. A professional city manager is in charge of the city.

City Council Ward 4

LARRY ALLEN COOPER, 51, was born in Chillicothe, Ohio. He moved to the St. Petersburg area in the early 1970s and has lived in Gulfport for 16 years. He graduated from Paint Valley High School in Bainbridge, Ohio, and received a certificate in business computing from the Pinellas Technical Education Center. He has worked as a craftsman printer for the Times for 17 years. Before that, he held jobs in maintenance at a hotel and worked as a cook. He also served in the U.S. Army, including an 18-month tour in Vietnam, working in the 44th Medical Brigade. He has been involved with Gulfport Little League since 1993 and is a past president. In 1996, Cooper was appointed to the City Council to fill a seat vacated by a member who resigned. He won re-election in 1997 and 1999. He is married and has 18-year-old twin children.

ASSETS: home in Gulfport.

LIABILITIES: none listed.

SOURCES OF INCOME: salary from the Times and the city of Gulfport, veteran's disability payments.

* * *

ERNEST LEONARD STONE, 53, is a St. Petersburg native. He graduated from Landon High School in Jacksonville and has lived in Gulfport for 22 years. He works for BATS Taxi Co. as a driver and dispatcher. He previously was a police dispatcher for Largo for five years, and was an ambulance driver. He also has coached in Gulfport Little League. He worked on the 49th Street Redevelopment Board, a council-appointed committee that worked on the corridor's improvement plan. He ran unsuccessfully for council in 1995 and 1999 and withdrew from a 1997 race for mayor. He is married and has two grown sons.

ASSETS: home in Gulfport.

LIABILITIES: mortgage.

SOURCES OF INCOME: job at BATS.

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