Gulfport’s two police unions are backing Councilwoman Christine Brown’s (Ward II) reelection bid in Ward II, but are split in the Ward IV race between incumbent Michael Fridovich and challenger Ian O’Hara.
The union representing Gulfport firefighters is also backing both Fridovich and Brown, according to the candidates.
“I’ve got the firefighters. I’ve got the PBA,” Fridovich told The Gabber, referring to backing from the Pinellas County Professional Firefighters Association and Suncoast Police Benevolent Association Inc.
The former represents Gulfport firefighters while the latter is one of two unions representing the Gulfport Police Department.
“I’m a strong supporter of both the police and firefighters and try to get them what they need to function properly,” said Fridovich.
But the Fraternal Order of Police Pinellas Lodge 43 is backing O’Hara, according to Douglas Weaver, president of the local law enforcement union. Weaver said Monday the O’Hara backing came after canvassing of rank-and-file Gulfport Police Department officers.
O’Hara was disappointed in the PBA’s endorsement of Fridovich arguing he would be more aggressive in securing police pay increases than the incumbent.
“I’m very disappointed the PBA endorsed Michael,” he said.
He was expecting the FOP endorsement and said increasing police compensation is a top priority, noting the overtime costs and strains on existing staff when the agency is short staffed.
“We have to bring our pay up,” O’Hara said in an interview with The Gabber.
O’Hara said Gulfport ranks second last in police pay in the county and he wants to bring that up.
“We have the money to do that,” he said. “We should at least be number two in the county.”
Christine Brown told The Gabber she is also enjoying support for Gulfport’s public safety unions.
“I am endorsed by the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and the Pinellas County Professional Firefighters Inc., Local 4966,” Brown told The Gabber.
She points to her direct experience as well as her support for public safety.
“I was a volunteer firefighter for the City of Gulfport for 10 years back, when they had volunteers. And I do have a Law Enforcement Officer in my family (my daughter is married to sheriff’s deputy),” said Brown, who is being challenged for her seat by Greg Simek and Christopher Butler-Jones, “Regarding both professions, I do know how hard they work, how challenging their schedule is and how stressful, both emotionally and physically their jobs are.”
Officials from the local firefighters union declined to comment on or confirm its council endorsements citing a policy of not speaking with the news media. Gulfport’s municipal elections take place March 14.
Sasha Lohn, general counsel and executive director of the Suncoast PBA, cited the incumbents support for increasing police pay.
“We are donating money to both Ms. Brown and Mr. Fridovich’s campaigns to help them get the word out about their goals to increase police officer pay and morale in the city of Gulfport. A healthy police department is the foundation of a healthy city,” Lohn said.
Lohn pointed to GPD pay and staffing challenges. Gulfport Police Chief Robert Vincent told The Gabber earlier this month that department had eight openings for its 33 sworn officer positions.
Gulfport PD pay starts at less than $62,580; however that includes a $9,694 signing bonus split between the city ($3,000) and state of Florida ($6,694) as part of a recruitment push launched by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year. The starting base salary for Gulfport officers is $54,316.84.
Starting salary for the Tampa Police Department is $65,977; starting pay for the St. Petersburg Police Department is $62,067; and in Clearwater, it’s $59,411 per year.
“Gulfport Police officer pay is very low and, as a result, Gulfport is having an extremely hard time recruiting and keeping its police officers. Gulfport cannot fill vacancies in its Police Department effectively when a new police officer can make $10,337.40 more per year for her family by driving ten minutes south and working for the city of St. Petersburg,” Lohn said.
Both Fridovich and Brown said Gulfport faces challenges in recruiting and retaining officers when they have to compete with larger neighboring and nearby departments.
“We do have budget constraints sometimes,” Fridovich said, pointing to the Gulfport operating its own full-service police department.
Some beach and other smaller Pinellas County communities have contracted out law enforcement operations to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Fridovich said he wants Gulfport to keep its own police force.
Brown said she wants to restart efforts to build a new Public Safety Complex on 49th Street.
“I brought it back a couple years ago, but COVID put the brakes on it. I believe the time is right to revisit this potential project. I would like if funding can be made available for a state-of-the-art Public Safety facility at the 49th street Neighborhood Center,”she said.
Brown said the police department needs to have facilities that can better service the increased numbers of female officers. She also said police departments across the country are facing the staffing challenges.
Both Fridovich and Brown were first elected in 2012. Cohen also cited the pair’s “deep institutional knowledge” on the police staffing issue.
Simek, a small business owner who is making his first run for elected office, said there can be built-in biases in favor of political incumbents.
“The normal policy of most trade groups is to endorse the incumbent as long as the incumbent has shown a willingness to collaborate in the past,” Simek said. “They do this because of the statistically high chance of the incumbent usually winning re-election, so it is a probabilistic bet. This makes sense and if the situation were reversed I probably would very likely do the same – as the saying goes ‘better the devil you know than who you don’t.’”
Simek said his campaign has been more focused on lack of affordable housing in the city and fostering entrepreneurship, artists, and small businesses in Gulfport. He has concerns about the rises in homelessness and drug overdoses tied to fentanyl.
He also wants a comprehensive examination of turnover at the police department.
“I know from running my own small business that turnover is a killer and I believe the reasons why should probably be investigated more completely. Typically, employee turnover is usually attributed to both compensation issues and company culture & employee recognition,” Simek said.