A candidate with Scientology roots is running for Clearwater mayor

Morton Myers says he’s not an active member. But with family on Scientology’s staff, he says he’s uniquely positioned to find middle ground with the church.
Morton Myers, 40, is an entrepreneur, a lifelong Clearwater resident and now a candidate for mayor who comes from a family of Scientologists. He says he is not a practicing Scientologist and is running to bring change and representation to all residents.
Morton Myers, 40, is an entrepreneur, a lifelong Clearwater resident and now a candidate for mayor who comes from a family of Scientologists. He says he is not a practicing Scientologist and is running to bring change and representation to all residents. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Nov. 12, 2019|Updated Nov. 12, 2019

CLEARWATER — When Morton Myers introduces himself as the latest mayoral hopeful, he fields questions about Scientology the same way he did as a child growing up in Clearwater.

Myers, 40, said he’s always been “neutral” on religion. But his parents were dedicated Scientologists, having spent much of their adult lives in the Sea Org, the church’s military-style workforce. They left the religious order in 1983, when Myers was 3, to raise a family.

He lived an active childhood in the Wood Valley and Oak Acres neighborhoods, camping with the Boy Scouts, dirt biking with his brothers and attending public schools.

About a year after his mother died in 1999 from melanoma, Myers’ father returned to the Sea Org. His youngest brother, then 12, joined too. His other brother joined a few years later at age 20.

Myers chose a different life. He married his high school sweetheart and blended with her family, a clan he described as “devoted Christians.” He has run a slew of businesses over the years and now owns the Dairy Kurl ice cream shop and Tampa Bay Pawn, both on Gulf to Bay Boulevard.

While Myers says he is “not an active member of Scientology,” his family roots in the organization bring a rare, if not unprecedented, dynamic to the mayoral campaign. Throughout Scientology’s history in Clearwater — from its arrival in 1975 with written plans to take over, to the recent flood of commercial real estate purchases downtown — no candidate for City Council has spoken as openly about having ties to the church.

Myers said he decided to run for mayor in the March election over concerns about the city’s proposed spending on Imagine Clearwater, a $64 million plan to transform the waterfront and revitalize the depressed downtown. He said he wants to keep three key city-owned waterfront parcels out of the hands of developers.

His priority is to be a voice to neighborhoods outside of downtown that he sees as overlooked.

“I’m not here to campaign for Scientology," Myers said. "I have nothing to do with their agenda. I’m actually here for the people of Clearwater.”

But Myers said his family’s involvement in Scientology gives him an insight no other candidate could provide when dealing with the church.

In October, the Tampa Bay Times reported that companies tied to Scientology spent $103 million since 2017 buying nearly 100 commercial properties around the downtown waterfront and Scientology’s international spiritual headquarters. The push has given the church decisive control over the future of the retail district.

RELATED: ClearTakeover, How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years

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Myers said his background positions him to be able to communicate with the church about its plans.

“I think they might actually talk to me because of my relations,” Myers said. “I don’t find myself as an ally, but I don’t think I’d be looked at as an enemy.”

Just like when he was a child growing up in Clearwater, Myers has had to explain a complicated balance to voters: He is not a practicing Scientologist, but he maintains that parishioners like his father and brothers “are just trying to be happy.” He said he has read news reports over the years about alleged human trafficking, abuse and financial exploitation but has never seen it firsthand.

“With the Church of Scientology, you have a group of people that are trying to do their own thing and they are protected by the First Amendment," he said. “There’s been a lot of prejudice in this city towards their group, so I can understand why they would do things on their own.”

Myers is the fourth candidate to announce a run for the mayor’s office, which is one of five equal seats on the City Council in the city manager form of government. He joins environmental advocate Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer, former mayor Frank Hibbard and former council member Bill Jonson. Myers has until Friday to submit the required 350 voter petition cards to qualify for the race.

He first ran for City Council in 2013, inspired by a desire to campaign against the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s proposal to build a new facility on the city-owned downtown bluff property. He dropped out two months after filing paperwork to focus on his businesses.

This time, Myers said he’s advocating on similar ground. While he supports Imagine Clearwater’s goal to improve the waterfront for the public, he disapproves of spending $64 million.

The plan calls for developers to build housing with ground-floor retail on the former Harborview and City Hall sites. Myers said he opposes leasing or selling the bluff properties to any developer.

Instead, he is proposing a city-run community center for the Harborview site. Myers said the city should build a parking garage on its 1.4 acre vacant lot across the street from City Hall; the aquarium sold the lot to the city in 2017 for $4.25 million after Scientology offered $15 million for the site.

As for the City Hall property, Myers said the city should preserve the building and convert it into an arts center or museum. He also proposes building an on-ramp to the Memorial Causeway Bridge through the City Hall property to re-direct traffic through downtown via Drew Street and Osceola Avenue.

In 2005, the city completed the new bridge to Clearwater Beach that rerouted beach traffic from downtown’s main artery of Cleveland Street to Court and Chestnut streets a few blocks south. Myers considers that move “the final straw that killed downtown” businesses.

“If I could move the bridge back I would,” he said.

Besides working to keep the city’s bluff properties from developers, Myers said he is running to bring more resources to other parts of the city, like shelters and bathrooms in neighborhood parks. He wants to help simplify city codes to make it easier for entrepreneurs to open businesses in long-vacant buildings.

Although Scientology has a policy that forces members to shun family, friends and associates who act against the church, Myers said he would not be influenced by Scientology as mayor.

“We need a new angle," he said. "You get a guy that has seen both sides of the fence and can, you know, have friends on both sides. ... My family is who they are and I am who I am. I’m throwing myself out there. I hope not to get caught up in the crossfire of what feels like a battle downtown.”