By AMY WIMMER
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001
GULFPORT -- On Tuesday night, neighbors' only chance to see all the candidates in this year's elections, perennial issues such as street drainage and the future of 49th Street were bound to be topics.
But the introduction into the race of a recently retired Gulfport police officer brings an unusually fiery topic to the table: how police officers are treated by the city.
Gulfport's city election will be Tuesday. The four polling sites in Gulfport will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The election is citywide; residents from all wards can vote on representatives from the other wards.
Here are the issues that were discussed at Tuesday's forum.
Larry Tosi, the retired police lieutenant who is running against Mayor Michael Yakes and the mayor's longtime critic, John Freiberger, insists that Gulfport has a high turnover rate caused by how management treats the officers.
Tosi said he requested several years' worth of turnover numbers from the city but has not received them yet because such numbers are not assembled in one public record. In the past year, 10 officers have left the city, according to City Manager Bob Lee, although fewer than half have left since the city approved a new contract that raises their salaries.
Tosi said the salaries won't help.
"It's often been said that the problem is financial ...," Tosi said. "It's a management problem and a management style problem. You must treat employees with respect and dignity." At the forum, Tosi gave no specific examples.
Yakes pointed out that many of Tosi's supporters Tuesday were Gulfport officers who live outside the city. He criticized the Police Benevolent Association and questioned how Tosi can heap such criticism on a police management team that Tosi was part of for 25 years.
Tosi retired in January.
Other candidates campaigning on what they see as poor treatment of the Police Department include Freiberger, the mayoral candidate; John W. Hamilton, who is running against Ward 2 incumbent Jack Olsen and challenger Dawn Fisher; and Ernest Stone, running against Ward 4 incumbent Larry Cooper.
All three incumbents praised City Manager Bob Lee and Chief Curt Willocks, who heads the Police Department.
Hamilton, Stone, Freiberger and Tosi also questioned why department heads in Gulfport are so well paid.
They pointed out Lee's salary of more than $97,000, which includes a $5,000 bonus this year for receiving a doctorate.
Stone isn't impressed. "Nobody told him to go out and get that doctorate," he said.
"No one can deny that Mr. Lee has brought a lot to Gulfport," Hamilton said. "All I know is when I call 911, he's not the one that answers at my door."
Incumbents defended their department heads, calling them top-notch and insisting that Gulfport is doing well because it has the best people in those jobs.
"If you're going to be competitive, we have got some of the sharpest young people down there running departments," Olsen said. "There are cities all around this county with their tongues hanging out saying, "Wow. How does Gulfport do it?' "
Fisher said she had not researched department head salaries and did not have an opinion on them.
Fisher said she thought the city's plan to revamp its 49th Street business corridor was a good one, but questioned whether the city could do more by simply getting out on the street instead of planning to.
Fisher picks up litter around Gulfport for two hours each day. "It's a pretty simple thing to do," she said. "Just a little work on our part."
Freiberger criticized how much money the city spends meeting its share of grant dollars it receives. He questioned whether such large projects should be city priorities right now.
"We're going to rue the day that we spent all this money on frivolous things," Freiberger said. "We have squandered millions and millions of dollars when it could come back to bite us."
Olsen pointed out that grant dollars received by Gulfport were for dedicated projects. For example, the city could not have diverted funding for the Catherine A. Hickman Theater of Gulfport toward drainage repairs.
Hamilton urged the city to take its redevelopment project into the neighborhoods surrounding 49th Street, not just the corridor itself. He said absentee landlords are one of the biggest issues facing Gulfport and questioned why the incumbents have not done more to address the problem.
Cooper, who spearheaded the push for an improved 49th Street, said he wanted to see it to fruition. The city recently purchased land for a police substation in the area, which is part of Cooper's Ward 4, and is poised to begin improvements at Tomlinson Park.
"Streetscaping will help retain businesses," Cooper said.
Gulfport has drainage problems and fixing them is no easy task.
Yakes said an engineering study of the city's flooding problems estimated that a citywide solution would cost $22-million.
Yakes believes that some minor flooding is simply a product of living near the water. And while a solution is out there, he's not convinced that drainage should be a financial priority for Gulfport.
"Stormwater is going to be a problem," Yakes said. "As long as it's going to rain and we're going to have to live by water, we're going to have to deal with that."
Tosi disagreed, saying the city needs to fervently look for solutions in the frequently flooding areas.
"New Orleans is below sea level," Tosi said, pointing out that city has found a solution. "Nobody is going to convince me that a solution isn't out there."