Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal

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Monday, October 25, 1993



Beacon Journal staff writer

Three men in suits and ties sat at a table in the Stark County Board of Elections last week, poring over the results of the November 1989 vote on a 0.5 percent county piggyback sales tax.

They weren't curious about the outcome. They knew the tax had lost 64,305 to 37,169.

It was the precinct-by-precinct vote they were after. Neighborhoods that had voted most heavily in favor of the tax would not be targeted by volunteers passing out fliers against a new, 1.0 percent sales tax on the Nov. 2 ballot.

"If everybody in Hills & Dales voted for the tax (in 1989), then there's no point in us going up there now," said Richard J. Wingerter.

Wingerter is a leader of the Stark Committee for the Right to Vote, a loosely knit citizens group whose referendum petition drive last year resulted in the repeal of the sales tax. The group is working to keep it off the tax rolls again.

Wingerter, 61, of Plain Township, is an unlikely candidate for leadership of a taxpayer revolt.

A retired Marlington middle school teacher, Wingerter wasn't involved in local politics until he attended public hearings in January 1991 on a proposal by county commissioners to approve the tax without a vote.

Wingerter didn't think that was right. "I don't think elected officials at the local level should have the power to tax without a vote."

When the three then-commissioners -- Tom Rice, Patti Miller and Mary Cirelli -- went ahead and imposed the tax, Wingerter and several others founded BEST -- Better Economy through Sensible Taxation -- to back a referendum vote on the issue.

By August 1991, the group had managed to gather the more than 13,000 signatures needed. But the issue was kept off the ballot on a technicality. Thomas Heatherly, who had met Wingerter at the public hearings on the tax and helped establish BEST, was angry.

"They (the election board) applied the statutes against the will of the people," said Heatherly, 48, a self-employed financial planner.

Discouraged by the rejection of the petition, the BEST group was in disarray. It lost one of its leaders when Wingerter decided to challenge Tom Rice in the Republican primary for commissioner.

In early 1992, Betty Jane Wyandt of Canton decided it was time to start from scratch.

Joined by Heatherly and several other BEST veterans, Wyandt founded the Committee for the Right to Vote.

"That's what we were after -- to get the right to vote on these issues," she said.

The job of making sure the new committee didn't make any mistakes was assigned to A.L. Coppock, a close friend of Wyandt.

Over the next six months Wyandt, Coppock and Heatherly attended every public event they could think of, gathering signatures. By the August deadline, they had more than 18,000 -- about 5,000 more than required.

In November, the tax was repealed by nearly 2-to-1.

A victory like that usually spells the end of a tax revolt. But instead of disbanding, the Committee for the Right to Vote grew stronger both in numbers and savvy.

For that, the commissioners get a lot of the credit -- or blame -- by providing the group with a new issue to rally around.

On March 25, the commissioners approved a $10 increase in the license plate fees. This time the group faced a more daunting task: They had only 30 days to gather the names for a referendum.

When it turned in 22,000 names -- more than 10 percent of all the registered voters in the county -- many political veterans were stunned.

"Frankly, I was more than a little shocked," said Roy Gutierrez, chairman of the Stark County Democratic Party.

Several months later, commissioners rescinded the fee hike. The committee leaders acknowledge they couldn't have gotten so many signatures without help.

But Wingerter had rejoined the group, and publicity about the license plate fee increase quickly drew volunteer circulators.

"I was reading the article in the paper about the license fee hike and it kind of ticked me off," said Clyde L. Robbins, 44, of Canton. "I looked up Wingerter's number in the phone book and he popped over that same night with a petition form.

"When I filed that one, he gave me 10 more."

Robbins, 44, a self-employed concrete contractor and part-time country musician, gathered more than 3,000 names. He was among more than 135 people who helped circulate the petitions.

Another circulator who has stayed active with the committee is Arthur F. Hallam of North Canton.

Hallam, 69, a retired computer programmer who spent most of his career with the Akron rubber industry, said he is skeptical of the need for the tax. `The commissioners have not put on a convincing campaign," he said. "I don't think they need as much as they're asking for."

Hallam is putting his computer expertise to good use by maintaining a mailing list of potential volunteers and helping to analyze voting returns.

As the Committee for the Right to Vote has grown more effective, its relationship with the county's elected officials has worsened.

Coppock, who attends most commissioners meetings and has bombarded officials with demands for public records.

Last week, Coppock ran a classified advertisement in the Canton Repository complaining that county Auditor Janet Weir Creighton had refused to provide him the "accrual accounting financial statement of Stark County for 1992."

Creighton said she can't give him something she doesn't have.

"I'm tired of arguing with Al," said Creighton, who became so exasperated with him that she offered him a job. Coppock declined the offer.

Even his friends on the committee admit that Coppock can be trying to work with at times.

"We all have our idiosyncrasies," said Heatherly. "There are always things you overlook. But it doesn't affect the way he works and what he believes."

Part of the reason Coppock is an easy target is that he is extreme in many of his beliefs.

For example, Coppock thinks he has been placed under surveillance and that documents have been taken from his home.

Coppock also cultivates an aura of secrecy -- he dodges photographers and won't give his age or birthplace. He admits to being close to 60 years old.

That reticence, coupled with his rough-edged appearance -- bushy beard and longish hair -- provide fodder for a lot of rumors.

Like the one that says the reason Coppock isn't registered to vote in Stark County is because he was convicted of a felony in Knox County several years ago.

A check of court records revealed that Coppock indeed was charged with a crime, but certainly one in keeping with his iconoclastic politics.

Coppock was arrested July 11, 1986, when he protested sheriff deputies' attempt to seize a dairy farm, owned by friends of his, that had been foreclosed on.

He was charged with obstructing official business, a misdemeanor, and spent three days in jail. But a municipal court jury acquitted Coppock, who acted as his own attorney.

Afterward, Coppock unsuccessfully sued virtually every public official in sight. In one suit, he demanded as compensation "1,176 troy ounces of pure gold' for each day, he had been jailed.

The only other run-in Coppock had with the law on record in Knox County was a Jan. 13, 1987, speeding ticket in Mount Vernon, which cost him a night in jail because he refused to display his driver's license from his native Michigan.

"He didn't fight with the officer. He didn't shout at the officer. He just didn't do anything the officer asked him to do," said William D. Smith, the Mount Vernon law director. "One thing you can say about Al: He's sincere in his beliefs and he doesn't ever waver."

© Copyright 1998 The Akron Beacon Journal

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