As City Council candidates knock on doors and shake hands at events ahead of the March 17 election, voters are pushing them to confront an issue rarely discussed in public.
“Eight out of 10 times the word Scientology comes up and is frequently the first question asked,” said Seat 2 candidate Michael Mannino. “What are you going to do about Scientology?”
Forty-four years after the Church of Scientology established its international spiritual headquarters downtown, its profile is more prominent in this election than any other in recent years.
RELATED: Where every Clearwater City Council candidate stands on Scientology
An activist who spent years speaking against what he calls Scientology fraud and abuse is running for a council seat. A candidate for mayor has family on church staff. And the church is staying silent about its intentions after revelations that companies tied to Scientology have been buying up dozens of downtown retail properties over the last three years.
But ideas on how to address Scientology’s growing stronghold in downtown are still absent from most of the 13 candidates’ public platforms, websites and flyers. Instead, the topic surfaces the way it has for years — in private conversations, with code words and generalities, and in public only at the prompting of a few.
Scientology’s documented history of using smear campaigns and private investigators against critics has made residents and elected officials loathe to say the “S word” publicly, even as they ruminate privately about the church’s presence.
This year, there are signs that might be changing.
“Everybody is afraid. The tactics of Scientology, everything you say and do can be used against you,” said resident Jason Strotheide. “The misunderstanding is if we play nice with them, they are going to play nice with us. That’s not the way it works. I think it’s time for our city leaders to say this is actually a problem and what are we going to do about it.”
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to questions for this story or to a request to interview Scientology leader David Miscavige.
The meeting at the Main Library on Dec. 3 was the public’s chance to see new renderings of Imagine Clearwater, the $64 million plan to convert the city-owned downtown waterfront into a vibrant park. Assistant City Manager Michael Delk fielded a few questions about parking and noise.
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Then business owner Mike Riordon raised a topic that has been largely absent from public discussions on the project going back to 2016.
“I think we’re throwing (away) money and we’re helping the Church of Scientology further their invasion, which has never stopped," Riordon said. "It’s an ongoing thing, it’s never going to stop as long as they can get away with it. So I’m wondering. People running for mayor, council: Why are we doing this?”
In October, the Tampa Bay Times reported that companies tied to Scientology had purchased nearly 100 properties within walking distance of the waterfront since 2017. The church and companies run by parishioners now own most of the retail property within the same boundaries the city hoped would sprout new businesses near a renewed park.
Mark Bunker, the longtime Scientology critic running for council Seat 2, followed Riordon’s concern. “Until we know what Scientology plans to do with their properties, it’s hard to see us sinking $64 million into this when it’s a big gamble,” Bunker said.
A tense exchange followed.
“Let’s keep this to things about the park,” a man in the audience called over Bunker, with several others backing him up.
“How do we go forward without knowing what Scientology is going to do to possibly sabotage it?” Bunker continued.
City Manager Bill Horne then urged Bunker to direct his Scientology questions to elected officials, not city staff who were there to talk about the park’s design.
“Tonight that’s not the topic," Horne said. "Tonight is the park, so don’t expect (Delk) to answer questions that are not appropriate for tonight’s session.”
At a forum organized by residents on Dec. 7, the first of the election season, candidates had three minutes each to lay out their platforms.
Of the four running for mayor, five for Seat 2 and four for Seat 3, only Bunker brought up Scientology. He described the church as “a bully” that needed to be confronted.
The remaining 12 candidates addressed Scientology only when asked by Aaron Smith-Levin, a former Scientologist now volunteering for Bunker’s campaign.
Even then, some avoided the topic.
“Downtown is important for the city, but it’s not the only part of the city,” said Scott Thomas, a human resources manager running for Seat 3.
Bruce Rector, an attorney running for Seat 2, made an analogy. Sometimes, he said, media coverage of an approaching hurricane ends up doing more damage to local tourism than the storm itself.
No candidate besides Bunker has addressed Scientology in campaign literature.
But Frank Hibbard, who served as mayor from 2004 to 2012 and is running again for the post, is asking for feedback.
In a survey Hibbard mailed to 22,000 residents and pushed on social media, two of the 25 questions ask residents for their views on the church and downtown. Hibbard said Scientology is by far the top issue brought up by voters this campaign. It wasn’t that way during his runs for mayor in 2004 and 2008.
He has publicly said he will hold Scientology accountable as a corporate entity. But he did not include that in his campaign website or flyers. Hibbard said that’s because, with the heightened concern about Scientology, he wants to keep some of the conversation on issues like the budget, solid waste costs and keeping talented employees.
“Scientology discussions will take care of themselves,” he said. “You can’t escape that discussion.”
In a four-question survey from the Times about Scientology, candidates varied on how they would approach the secretive church.
Asked whether anything should be done to address the stagnation of at least 26 vacant lots and 31 empty storefronts owned by companies tied to Scientology, mayoral candidate Elizabeth Drayer and Seat 2 candidates Mark Bunker and Michael Mannino suggested levying fines. Mayoral candidate Bill Jonson said it would be helpful if property owners communicated their plans, but “such conversations are not required by law or ordinance.”
Asked how they view Scientology, Drayer said, “Felonies committed by Scientologists or anyone else should be prosecuted, including conspiracy, fraud, stalking, harassment and human trafficking.” Seat 2 candidate Lina Teixeira called the church “a large and well-financed institution that should bear its share of responsibility to revitalize all of Clearwater.”
Seat 3 candidate Bud Elias said “we shouldn’t just let the church go unabated in changing the entire downtown footprint without safeguards.”
All candidates responded to the survey except mayoral candidate Morton Myers.
Myers is a business owner who said he is running for mayor to prevent three city-owned waterfront properties from being sold or leased to developers for Imagine Clearwater. But his background brings an unprecedented element to the race.
While he said he is not a member of the church, he was raised by dedicated Scientologists. Today his father and two brothers are in the Sea Org, the church’s military-style workforce.
“I don’t find myself as an ally," he said in a recent interview, “but I don’t think I’d be looked at as an enemy.”
Political discussions in Clearwater did not always avoid Scientology.
In 1977, two years after the church bought the Fort Harrison Hotel as its base, the FBI raided Scientology’s Washington D.C. and Los Angeles offices. Among the documents seized, federal agents found internal memos outlining years of efforts by Scientology to infiltrate Clearwater government and civic offices and smear enemies.
Then-mayor Gabe Cazares had raised the alarm from Scientology’s first days in the city. He stated in 1979 that “Clearwater is the first city to be occupied ... by a master plan by a destructive cult.”
During the campaign in 1980, then-City Commissioner Richard Tenney and a challenger for his seat proposed using eminent domain to reclaim the Fort Harrison from Scientology.
In those early years, the public had a quizzical fear of an entity they didn’t much understand, said Denis deVlaming, a Clearwater lawyer who has represented clients in litigation against the church. But decades of watching “how ruthless Scientology can be as far as investigating their critics" created a reluctance to speak out, he said.
Recent events could be changing that, he said, if not with the candidates, then for many voters.
"The public are throwing their hands up asking, and it’s causing some to be very ill-eased because you can’t show prejudice,” deVlaming said. “But in the back of their minds, they know the public is just afraid of losing their town and they want somebody that’s going to fight for their town.”