CLEARWATER — For an elected body, the Downtown Development Board’s power goes only so far. It does not have authority to pass city ordinances or hire and fire staff.
Its influence lies in helping shape how the world sees downtown. Its $267,000 operating budget, funded through a special tax on downtown property owners, is spent on items like festivals and holiday lighting.
But this modest, volunteer board could make history next month with what might be the first elected body comprised of a majority of members of the Church of Scientology, downtown’s largest property owner.
Three of the five candidates running for three seats in the Oct. 8 election are downtown business owners who are also Scientology parishioners. Three of the seven current board members are also parishioners: Stu Sjouwerman, founder of cyber security firm KnowBe4, whose term ends this year and who is not running for re-election; Ray Cassano, owner of Station Square Realty, whose term ends in 2021; and Paris Morfopoulos, owner of One Stoppe Shoppe, who is running for another term.
If Morfopolous wins re-election and candidates Shahab Emrani and Keanan Kintzel are elected, a majority of board members, four of seven, will be associated with Scientology for what appears to be the first time.
Scientology’s fraught relationship with the city goes back to its arrival in 1975, which was followed by Scientology’s effort to infiltrate local offices, its scheme that framed the mayor in a hit-and-run, and legal battles between the city and the church.
As the church grew its international spiritual headquarters downtown, parishioners opened businesses and bought property around it. However the business district has struggled for decades with empty storefronts and low foot traffic.
In 2017 Scientology leader David Miscavige offered to bankroll a revitalization. He rescinded the offer and cut communication after the city bought a vacant lot the church had also bid on.
So the impact of a board tasked with setting the culture for downtown being comprised mostly of parishioners would be in what it does with that majority, City Manager Bill Horne said.
“(Would) they act in a way that promotes the downtown in an objective way or do they act in a way that reinforces the biases that currently exist in the city, that the downtown is owned by the Church of Scientology?” Horne said.
At a development board meeting earlier this month, Mark Bunker, a filmmaker and longtime critic of Scientology who is also running for City Council, addressed Scientology’s role in a way that is rarely brought up in public meetings.
“If the problem downtown is Scientology, are Scientologists the answer?” Bunker said while commenting on the board’s agenda item to approve the slate of candidates. “People are largely afraid to come downtown. They don’t want their money going into Scientologists’ pockets. I don’t agree with that. I come downtown, I think everyone should come downtown. But there is that perception that has to be overcome.”
Thomas Wright, who is not a Scientologist, responded that in his nine years on the board, “I can tell you I’ve never seen a vote here that went in favor of Scientology over the citizens of Clearwater.”
Only the representatives of 375 properties within the board’s boundaries, a jigsaw shaped area around downtown’s center, are eligible to vote this year, according to Anne Lopez, a specialist in the Community Redevelopment Agency, which oversees the board.
Representatives for 402 properties in the boundaries did not fill out voter registration cards and 128 parcels are not counted because they are owned by the government or are fully tax exempt.
While 72 percent of the 60 properties Scientology owns in Pinellas County are tax exempt for religious purposes, the church can cast 18 votes for properties it owns within the development board’s boundaries that are partially or fully subject to taxes.
Cassano has 58 of the 375 eligible votes for parcels he owns or represents. Fifty-three of those are for properties owned by companies run by himself with fellow Scientologist Emrani, a candidate in this election.
Candidates and Scientologists Emrani, Kintzel and Morfopolous, did not respond to requests for comment.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw also did not respond to requests for comment.
Edmon Rakipi, who is not a member of Scientology, said he’s running for the board to bring his background in hospitality and finance to help revitalize downtown. He said he also questions whether Scientology’s goals align with the city’s, and that it should be addressed.
"I've seen how much Clearwater Beach has changed in the time I've been there and we've seen none of that growth in the downtown area," said Rakipi, who co-owns an Opportunity Fund consulting firm. "Honestly there's a big obstacle there with the church. Not saying it's good or bad but it makes it a little difficult to operate in that space when the goals aren't in alignment."
Candidate Festus Porbeni, not a member of Scientology, said he doesn’t know enough about Scientology’s goals to know whether they align with the city’s.
With his work in real estate management and media consulting, Porbeni said he’s eager to help attract new businesses and make merchants feel supported.
“I’m invested in downtown and I want to see it flourish,” Porbeni said. “I believe it can do better. There’s so much that can happen here.”
Community Redevelopment Agency director Amanda Thompson noted the board exists to enhance all of downtown, and no development board funds have gone to the church.
“You could say ‘do all the merchants, whether they are parishioner or not, benefit from special events?’ Absolutely,” Thompson said. “But when you look at who the money has actually gone to, it’s majority non Scientologist.”
However there is historical evidence Scientology has been watching the board since its early years in the city.
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s intelligence office exchanged hundreds of internal memos about its infiltration plans for Clearwater. Operation Bulldozer Leak, dated Sept. 21, 1976, lists local, county and federal offices in the area that “that have attacked Scn in any fashion, or would have any interest in Scn for any reason.”
Number four on the list?
“Clearwater Downtown Development Board.”