CLEARWATER — Downtown property owners made history on Tuesday by electing a majority of people associated with the Church of Scientology onto the Downtown Development Board.
The results are believed to be the first time the church has had a majority presence on an elected city body.
Although the development board has limited power — it cannot pass ordinances or hire and fire staff — it uses $267,000 in revenues from a special tax assessed on property owners within district boundaries to fund events, market downtown and attract new businesses.
As the largest property owner downtown, the role the Church of Scientology will play in revitalization efforts has been unclear as church leadership has not shared its long-term plans for its campus with the city.
“Unfortunately the board will have to prove itself because there are going to be people that are going to believe that it will be under the control of the church,” said City Manager Bill Horne. “I don’t believe that’s the case but ... the board clearly has a non-church related purpose, and it ought to demonstrate that every day in all its dealings.”
On Tuesday, property owner Shahab Emrani, Buzzazz Business Solutions owner Keanan Kintzel and One Stoppe Shoppe owner Paris Morfopoulos were the three top vote-getters in the race for three open seats on the volunteer board. Joining sitting board member and real estate agent Ray Cassano, four of the seven development board officials will now be associated with the church when they take office in January.
The three beat out candidates Edmon Rakipi and Festus Porbeni, who are not members of the church.
Only 232 out of 375 eligible ballots were cast on Tuesday, according to Anne Lopez, a specialist in the Community Redevelopment Agency, which oversees the board.
There are 905 properties within the boundaries of the board, a jigsaw shaped district that snakes around downtown. But representatives for 402 properties 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 had 18 votes for properties it owns within the development board’s boundaries that are partially or fully subject to taxes.
The results, according to Lopez, where each voter was able to select up to three candidates, were: Morfopoulos received 146 votes, Kintzel had 126 and Emrani got 124 votes. Porbeni and Rakipi received 98 and 97 votes, respectively. There were also three write-in candidates: Taylor Precourt got 58 votes, while Mike Sutton and Adam Kapinski each got one vote.
Emrani, Kintzel and Morfopoulos did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw also did not respond to a request for comment.
Policies written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard detail, at length, a disdain for government and the desire for Scientology to influence society. One policy letter in 1960 that created a Department of Government Affairs stated the goal was “to bring the government and hostile philosophies or societies into a state of complete compliance with the goals of Scientology."
Scientology established its international spiritual headquarters downtown in 1975 and immediately deployed a scheme to “establish area control," according to internal memos uncovered by the FBI in 1977. The plot included plans to infiltrate dozens of local government and civic offices; the successful planting of spies in the Chamber of Commerce, State Attorney’s Office and Clearwater Sun newspaper; and the formation of enemies lists.
The Downtown Development Board made it on a list of offices that “that have attacked Scn in any fashion, or would have any interest in Scn for any reason.”