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Gulfport challengers see possibilities

The five-term mayor has had his chance, they say. It's time for new blood and new ideas in the city's top office.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


GULFPORT -- The mayor's race pits a five-term incumbent against his perennial adversary and a recently retired police detective who is a newcomer to politics.

Both challengers believe Mayor Michael Yakes has ignored some of Gulfport's most pressing problems, and they want to bring their experience and perspective to the mayor's seat.

Yet with all the apparent strides that Gulfport has made in recent years -- the improvements in the Waterfront Business District, the new attention to the 49th Street corridor, the increased property values -- even candidate John Freiberger wonders whether voters will turn out to remove a long-sitting mayor from office.

"How do you get people to vote when they truly believe everything's hunky-dory?" Freiberger asked in a recent interview.

Yakes, who first joined City Council in 1986 and became mayor in 1991, said he is eager to continue working on projects Gulfport has underway and hopes to introduce some new ideas in his next term. Among other needs in the city, he would like to see more people in Gulfport have access to reclaimed water.

Freiberger believes Yakes has had enough time to bring about such improvements. Just as he did two years ago when he ran against Yakes for mayor, Freiberger says he is running to bring "the fresh air of integrity and credibility to Council."

But Freiberger stops short of directly criticizing Yakes and the current administration, saying that his promise to be credible should not imply that the mayor or other City Council members aren't.

The gadfly has been more direct in his lawsuit against the city of Gulfport. In a legal action stemming from the way he was treated while speaking at a public meeting, Freiberger accused city officials of violating his rights.

In April 1998, Freiberger was arrested and charged with trespassing after he refused to stop speaking and was gaveled out of order. He was acquitted of the charge.

Yakes, who was mayor at the time, was not at the meeting. Vice Mayor John "Ted" Phillips is the city official who pounded the gavel as Freiberger spoke.

Nine years ago, Freiberger sued Kenneth City, saying he was falsely arrested after disputing a citation for running a red light and speeding. The citations and a resisting arrest charge were dropped, and the lawsuit was settled out of court.

Freiberger says many of the projects the council has spent years working on are just cosmetics. "At some point you have to step back and say, "Okay, we've beautified. What else is there?' " Freiberger said.

He criticizes the 49th Street project for focusing too much on the commercial street and too little on the neighborhoods that surround it. Most of all, he would like to see the council "delve into issues" instead of approving the city manager's proposals. He admires the way the St. Petersburg City Council takes its time reviewing projects.

He also is unimpressed by the grants that Gulfport has received and by the city's success at revitalizing the waterfront district, explaining that receiving grants is as simple as applying for the money.

He also is concerned about the city's water and sewer rates and wants to find a way for Gulfport to supply its own water. "We depend solely on the city of St. Petersburg for water," Freiberger said. "We're at their mercy."

Lawrence C. Tosi Jr. spent 29 years with the Gulfport Police Department before retiring in January. And while he won't openly criticize the current mayor, city manager or police chief, he does suggest that Gulfport employees are dissatisfied, and he thinks someone with intimate knowledge of the city can help the situation.

He points to the turnover rate in the police department as one example, and the fact that firefighters recently sought to unionize. Within the past year, 10 officers have left the department, most of them before the city approved a new contract with the police union that raises pay and makes Gulfport more competitive with other agencies in Pinellas County.

"It's a big concern," Tosi said. "We have a lot of good people that we've lost, a lot of officers that we've lost, and it's a tragedy. If the trend continues, what's going to happen to our department?"

He said he doesn't believe the increased pay will help retain officers, and he asks why Yakes hasn't questioned the turnover rate. "Has the mayor bothered to learn the real reason why these people are leaving?"

Besides personnel issues, Tosi wants to encourage business opportunities in Gulfport and also wants to make reclaimed water available to more residents.

Yakes said he attributes the turnover rate at the police department more to the small-town nature of the department than to problems with management.

"As a smaller municipality, we bring on an officer and we wish they would stay, but they choose to leave, and they go on to a sheriff's department or another bigger city, and that's with regret," Yakes said.

He said he believes officers leave because bigger departments offer more specialized jobs in canine units or as helicopter pilots, plus more opportunities for advancement.

Yakes also questioned why Tosi is critical of the work atmosphere at the police department.

"He must think it's a wonderful place because he stayed there so long," Yakes said.

In his campaign, Yakes is focused on new ideas that are not yet formally on the table in Gulfport, such as working to reduce cable rates, finding some acreage to build a municipal parking lot and eventually building a water treatment facility.

Like other candidates, he believes Gulfport relies too much on St. Petersburg for its water and, subsequently, its water rates.

"Looking back on my tenure, it doesn't seem that long, but it's been a lot of work," Yakes said. "We need to nurture what we have and keep going."

His challengers think Yakes already has had an opportunity to get things done. Regarding getting reclaimed water to Gulfport, for example, Tosi said: "He's been the mayor for the past 10 years," Tosi said. "Why hasn't he done something about it?"

-- Times staff writer Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.

The job

This year, thanks to a recently adopted voter referendum, the mayor will be elected to a three-year term for the first time. The mayor receives $800 monthly and votes as a member of the City Council.

Mayor

MICHAEL JOHN YAKES, 57, was born in Michigan but has lived in Gulfport most of his life. He has a high school equivalency certificate and has taken business courses over the years. He retired in 1999 after a 37-year career with the Florida Department of Transportation as a regional safety and health manager. Since retiring, Yakes has started his own business, Safety Training Services. He has been involved with Gulfport Elementary's school advisory committee, the Gulfport Lions Club, the county board overseeing emergency medical services, and numerous other government organizations such as the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. He also has supported Gulfport Little League. Yakes has been mayor since 1991 and has served on the City Council since first being appointed in 1986. He is married with a 14-year-old son at home, plus a grown daughter, stepchildren and grandchildren.

ASSETS: home.

LIABILITIES: mortgage.

SOURCES OF INCOME: Florida Department of Transportation pension, Gulfport city salary, income from his business.

* * *

JOHN GLYNN FREIBERGER JR., 58, is a native of Tampa. He has lived in Gulfport for 13 years. He has a high school diploma and has taken courses at the University of South Florida and two real estate schools and other business courses. For the past four years, Freiberger has worked as a claims adjuster for New York Life in Tampa. He was a member of the 1996 Gulfport Charter Review Committee. In 1997, he created a political action committee, Gulfport Voice of the Electorate, to lobby for changes to city government. That year, he also ran unsuccessfully for City Council, and he was defeated by Yakes in a 1999 run for mayor. Freiberger is married with three grown daughters and a son.

ASSETS: Home and a rental property.

LIABILITIES: none listed.

SOURCES OF INCOME: job, retirement account, income from rental property.

* * *

LAWRENCE C. TOSI JR., 55, has lived in Gulfport and the surrounding area most of his life, first moving here when he was 10 years old. He has lived within the city limits for 20 years. Tosi recently retired after 29 years with the Gulfport Police Department, where he served in several capacities and retired as lieutenant heading the Community Resources Division. He was a detective with the department for 20 years and went on to head the detectives and then the patrol officers. Tosi graduated from Dixie Hollins High School and received his state law enforcement certification from the Pinellas Technical Education Center. He also received an associate's degree in law enforcement in 1992 from St. Petersburg Junior College and, in 1995, graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor's degree in criminology. He joined the U.S. Army Reserves in the mid-1960s and served about one year of active duty with the U.S. Army. Tosi has been a member of the Holy Name Catholic Church School Board and the parents' association at the school. He also has been a member of the International Homicide Investigators Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Tosi is married and has three grown children.

ASSETS: Home and certificate of deposit.

LIABILITIES: none listed.

SOURCES OF INCOME: Pension.

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