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  1. Clearwater

He has publicly criticized Scientology for decades. Now he's running for Clearwater City Council.

Longtime Scientology critic Mark Bunker, 63, is running for Clearwater City Council. Bunker announced the run in a YouTube video June 11. [Courtesy of Mark Bunker]
Published Jun. 21

CLEARWATER — A man who has spent years publicly criticizing the Church of Scientology has announced he's running for City Council.

Mark Bunker, 63, broadcast in a YouTube video last week his intention to run. Bunker said in a subsequent interview he had not decided whether to run for Seat 2, currently occupied by Jay Polglaze; or Seat 3, held by Bob Cundiff.

But one thing he has decided: the City Council needs a vocal Scientology critic.

Clearwater, Bunker said, has "got a unique problem here in Scientology. And I think the city ought to balance it out with a unique council member who understands Scientology."

Ben Shaw, a spokesman for the Church of Scientology, did not respond to requests for comment.

Read more: Leah Remini's Scientology show puts Clearwater in national spotlight

Bunker's public fight against Scientology goes back decades. In 2000, he began work at the now-defunct Lisa McPherson Trust, a group formed in response to the death of a woman who died after being held at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel for 17 days in 1995.

The organization was funded by retired investment banker Bob Minton, who poured millions into the McPherson family's legal case and other anti-Scientology causes.

Trust employees routinely picketed outside Scientology properties in downtown Clearwater in the early 2000s, offering help to church members they suggested may have become trapped inside the organization.

Confrontations between picketers and church members became so heated that in 2000, a Pinellas County judge ruled that Bunker and other members of the trust were not allowed to go within 10 feet of parishioners — and that church members were not to approach them, either.

That permanent injunction is still in effect. When asked whether the legal document would affect his tenure, Bunker said he has been told by the Clearwater Police Department that law enforcement wouldn't enforce the injunction down to the letter.

"I don't think it's going to be a problem," Bunker said. "(The church has) tried to use it against me, but it's just nonsense."

In a statement, Police Chief Daniel Slaughter said the injunction "does not include an obligation" of his department to enforce its terms.

"It is the requirement of the parties of the injunction to bring forward to the court any violations for judicial review," Slaughter said.

Read more: Leah Remini's 'Scientology' viewers suspicious of Clearwater police, who are treading carefully

Bunker admits he's a non-traditional candidate: the lifelong liberal Democrat has spent various parts of his life in Wisconsin as a radio DJ; in Los Angeles as an actor; in Clearwater with the trust and in San Diego as a local Emmy award-winning television journalist. He said he has no spouse or children.

Other Clearwater residents have expressed interest in running for the council, But Bunker may be the first to make a public announcement. At an April meeting of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition, attendees interested in running were asked to raise their hands. A dozen arms shot up, said Karen Cunningham, the president of the coalition.

Bunker is early. City Council candidates can't raise money or even attempt to qualify until September — 180 days before the March 2020 elections, said Rosemarie Call, the city clerk.

The stakes are high: Two City Council seats and the mayor's office are up for grabs. Polglaze has said he will not seek another term in Seat 2. Cundiff said he plans to run again for Seat 3, but he has "not given up on the idea of running for mayor."

Longtime city manager Bill Horne and veteran city attorney Pam Akin are set to retire next year as well, all while the city moves forward on Imagine Clearwater, a sweeping $50 million remake of the downtown waterfront.

Bunker said he will use the time between now and September to meet citizens — he drives for Uber on the weekends — and study up on non-Scientology issues.

If Bunker were to eventually win a seat on the council, his presence would likely represent a major source of tension between the city and Scientology.

That tension would be nothing novel. In the 1970s, the church picked a series of legal and PR fights with then-Mayor Gabe Cazares, even going so far as to frame him in a hit-and-run car accident in Washington D.C. The Clearwater Police Department spent over a decade investigating the church, but its probe ended in 1994 with no charges filed.

Perhaps most relevant to Bunker are the events of 1982, when the Clearwater Commission presided over five days of hearings to investigate whether the church was a cult. Bunker said he would like to see the city convene similar hearings today.

Relations have thawed somewhat in recent years, at least by the standards of the church's early days in the city. Mayor George Cretekos, who will be termed-limited out in 2020, wrote a congratulatory note to Scientology leader David Miscavige when the church opened its Flag Building in 2013.

"I hope that we will now enter a new era of cooperation and understanding between the church and the city," Cretekos wrote, according to Times archives.

That era did not come to pass. Since then, the church and the city have clashed over various downtown properties.

Bunker criticized Cretekos' note at the time. He said in an interview that if Imagine Clearwater is to be a success, the city will have to reckon with Scientology's impact on the city.

"Not talking about Scientology isn't going to help anything," Bunker said.

Times staff writer Tracey McManus contributed to this story. Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets.

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