Advertisement

Dear Readers,

The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread disruption to the lives of everyone in Tampa Bay and to so many businesses in our community. Here at the Tampa Bay Times, we continue to provide free, up-to-date information at tampabay.com/coronavirus as a public service. But we need your help. Please consider supporting us by subscribing or donating, and by sharing our work. Thank you.

  1. News
  2. /
  3. Clearwater

Where every Clearwater City Council candidate stands on Scientology

From the church’s downtown holdings to how it’s perceived in the community, 12 of the 13 candidates responded to a Tampa Bay Times survey.
Church of Scientology members cross S Garden Avenue at Franklin Street in Clearwater, near the church's Flag Building in July. Ten of the 13 candidates for Clearwater City Council say voters frequently ask them about issues related to Scientology. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

The Church of Scientology has been a dominant issue in Clearwater since 1975, when the organization made downtown its international spiritual headquarters. But 44 years later, the story of the city and the church has begun a new chapter.

In early 2017, the City Council approved a conceptual plan for Imagine Clearwater, a $64-million blueprint to renovate the downtown waterfront into a vibrant park. Over the next three years, companies tied to Scientology bought nearly 100 downtown properties within walking distance of the city-owned waterfront, the Tampa Bay Times revealed in October. The church and companies run by its members now own most of the retail property in the center of downtown, the exact area where the city hoped businesses and activity would sprout as a result of the park renovation.

Related: RELATED: How Scientology is playing in a critical Clearwater election

The March 17 election has the potential to change a majority of the City Council. Three of the five seats are in contention.

The Times asked the four candidates running for mayor, the five running for Seat 2 and the four running for Seat 3 for their positions on Scientology. Here are their responses word-for-word.

Portions of each answer are highlighted. Click on the responses to read each candidate’s entire statement.

Should the city attempt to seek more information from Scientology about its plans for nearly 100 downtown properties bought over the past three years by companies tied to the church? If yes, how should the city pursue this request? If not, why not?

Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer

58, retired attorney, environmental advocate

Running for mayor

Clearwater mayoral candidate Elizabeth Drayer [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

Yes. Make the request in person in meetings with property owners/Miscavige and present a written request at the same time. However based on past experience here and elsewhere, the city cannot expect answers or follow through.

Frank Hibbard

52, financial planner, former two-term Clearwater mayor (2004-12)

Running for mayor

Clearwater mayoral candidate Frank Hibbard [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

Yes. I was not a part of city government when these acquisitions occurred but it is critical that the city knows what the plans for these properties are and the timelines for development. While I do not believe what Scientologists believe, I do think we must be pragmatic and communicate to understand their intentions.

Bill Jonson

75, retired accountant, former four-term City Council member (2001-07 and 2010-18)

Running for mayor

Clearwater mayoral candidate Bill Jonson [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

It would be helpful for property owners in Clearwater to participate in discussions about the future of Clearwater and especially downtown. However, it is recognized that such conversations are not required by law or ordinance.

Morton Myers

40, owner of Dairy Kurl and Tampa Bay Pawn

Running for mayor

Clearwater mayoral candidate Morton Myers [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

Did not respond. But in a previous interview, Myers said his family background could provide a unique tool in facilitating communication between the city and the church. While Myers said he is not a member of the church, he was raised by parents who were dedicated Scientologists. Today his father and two brothers are in the Sea Org, Scientology’s workforce.

Mark Bunker

63, filmmaker, longtime Scientology critic and former videographer for the Lisa McPherson Trust

Running for Seat 2

City Council Seat 2 candidate Mark Bunker [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

Not only should we but we must. The city and Scientology both cite the Urban Land Institute’s recommendation that the two entities must work together yet Scientology seems to view this as a one-sided mandate for the city to allow Scientology to tell them only what they want them to know, and thereafter do as it pleases. There must be transparency concerning who owns the properties and what the plan for them is. This is a necessary first step. The city should not invest $64 million on Imagine Clearwater if Scientology is unilaterally dictating the downtown’s future. I’d challenge Miscavige to prove his commitment to the city by going ahead with his plan to bring a major movie chain downtown. This would be a step that may draw people downtown and would not be solely for the benefit of Scientology.

Michael Mannino

42, owner of athletic event company Xanadu Race Management

Running for Seat 2

City Council seat 2 candidate Mike Mannino [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

YES! It is in the best interest of Clearwater and the citizens to understand the development and redevelopment plans of properties whose locations fall within the Downtown Comprehensive plan of our downtown district. The city departments of Economic Development and Planning/Development must be integral in the process and failure to communicate or comply should be enforced within the city’s legal ability.

Bruce Rector

56, attorney with management company Sports Facilities Advisory

Running for Seat 2

City Council seat 2 candidate Bruce Rector [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

Yes. Through engaging in dialogue with all the property owners.

Eliseo Santana

61, retired Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office technology supervisor

Running for Seat 2

City Council seat 2 candidate Eliseo Santana [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

It is important that the entire City Council have an open line of communication with all entities, individuals, companies, houses of worship, etc., that own downtown properties while pursuing and implementing our “Imagine Clearwater” project. The best way to pursue this goal is via open public forums, with all property owners expressing their hopes, aspirations and concerns about the future of our city.

Lina Teixeira

50, owner of Pour Yours wine bar and Wearable Art fashion design

Running for Seat 2

City Council seat 2 candidate Lina Teixeira [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

Absolutely, my expectation of any stakeholder is to be aware of its impact on its footprint and contribute to its surroundings. I am a strong proponent of developing a strong and vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem for all of Clearwater. However, the strongest economies are those that are the most economically diverse. The future of Clearwater is a robust economy with multiple credible actors at the table in tune and in harmony. In order to begin this harmony, the city should seek to pull together a joint meeting with the proper personnel of the Church of Scientology and various private sector representatives to discuss the long-term goals of the Church. The purpose would be to examine if it is in alignment with continuing goals of ALL members of the Clearwater community. The church’s needs must not supercede those of the City of Clearwater or its residents. Transparency and trust are paramount at this moment and if it can be achieved, I foresee a Clearwater that works for all members of our great city.

Kathleen Beckman

55, retired teacher

Running for Seat 3

City Council seat 3 candidate Kathleen Beckman [Courtesy of Kathleen Beckman]

As the city seeks to improve and revitalize the downtown community it should invite all property/business owners to participate in candid discussions about their visions/goals for downtown and the strategy to achieve them. I don’t think the COS should be treated any differently than any other property owner. Simply, we are all stakeholders and the expectation is that participants will be honest, forthright and collaborative. I believe city management (city manager and city attorney) is within their bounds to ask church leaders directly why they purchased additional property and what their plans are. However, I don’t think it’s helpful to group companies and Scientology parishioners together with the church as the greater “COS.” We simply do not have any evidence that demonstrates that the church and parishioners will necessarily operate as a monolith. With respect to separation of church and state, I don’t think it’s wise to assume because of someone’s religion they will behave in a certain way. Further, a person’s religious beliefs/practices are private and legally cannot be a consideration in business/real estate decisions/discussions. I believe initiating and participating in conversations with the COS is a positive for the city. There must be a dialogue because the COS has such a commanding presence in our downtown. The city should invite COS leaders to sit down for continued discussion. I think it is good practice that the city report to its residents a summary of each meeting held with the COS; perhaps a transcript of each meeting could be made available.

Bob Cundiff

74, incumbent first-term City Council member, St. Petersburg College professor

Running for Seat 3

City Council Seat 3 incumbent and candidate Bob Cundiff [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

If they are properties that have been vacant for many years, it would of course would be advantageous for the city to know what the new owners intend to do with them, whether it’s to develop now or plan to develop in the future or whether they were purchased on speculation.

Bud Elias

81, owner of insurance brokerage firm Advantage Group

Running for Seat 3

City Council Seat 3 candidate Bud Elias. [TRACEY MCMANUS | Times]

The lack of transparency from the church as to its intentions with the 100 downtown properties is top of mind for many Clearwater residents and very concerning to me personally. Of course the city should attempt to seek more information from Scientology as to its plans for those properties. In order to have an attractive, economically viable and desirable downtown core, we need to have a long-term plan for what occupies the vacant land and work towards achieving a vision agreed to by the citizens of Clearwater for the downtown. If downtown is not extraordinarily welcoming it will fail to meet the needs and demands of the people of Clearwater and threatens the economic viability of the city as a whole, and that is unacceptable.

Scott Thomas

29, senior human resources director at ManorCare Dunedin, former two-term Pottsville Area school board member in Pennsylvania

Running for Seat 3

City Council Seat 3 candidate Scott Thomas [Courtesy of Scott Thomas]

The city and the church have failed throughout the years to maintain a meaningful and consistent dialogue. With that being said, no organization, whether it’s the Church of Scientology or someone else, should receive any special treatment or favors.

In addition to properties with active uses, Scientology and companies run by parishioners own at least 26 vacant lots and 31 empty storefronts/buildings in the center of downtown within walking distance of the waterfront. Should anything be done to address the stagnation of this real estate? If yes, what should the city do to address this? If not, why not?

Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer

Running for mayor

If there is no movement to fill the vacant properties by a date certain, vacancy fees are an option (if the properties are not tax exempt). Some cities are imposing such fees to address the widespread problem of empty urban storefronts.

Frank Hibbard

Running for mayor

First, I want to be clear: It is unhealthy for any one entity to own too much property within the city limits. The city does not want to see any properties sit dormant; it is not economically beneficial. The city should always be encouraging full utilization of property and I plan to re-examine our development code, which is now 20 years old, and determine whether it can be a tool.

Bill Jonson

Running for mayor

Yes, the city should address the stagnation of the downtown. Over the years the city has created multiple plans. Recently, this has included ULI and HR&A’s Conceptual Plan for Downtown, both of which were created with extensive citizen involvement. City municipal government should respond to downtown and other areas of the city by implementing plans in a timely fashion, while providing excellent service and transparency.

Morton Myers

Running for mayor

Did not respond

Mark Bunker

Running for Seat 2

If a property is not being developed within a reasonable time in the downtown corridor, daily fines should be levied. Boarded up businesses contribute to urban blight. Storefronts should be used for retail or donated for the arts. If the owners have no use for the properties they should be auctioned off.

Michael Mannino

Running for Seat 2

YES! The stagnation of downtown real estate is a problem for the downtown district and has been a long standing concern for surrounding business owners and the citizens of Clearwater. I believe in property owner rights, however Code Enforcement should actively enforce compliance with city codes as to vacant properties, grass, building surfaces, parking surfaces, etc. An example of such a code needing to be enforced is when properties are purchased for development that sit undeveloped for six months, these properties should begin to incur fines and fees that if they remain unpaid should permit foreclosure proceedings. The enforcement of vacant storefronts to operate as permitted use should be reinforced by the use of compatibility ordinances. The enforcement of city codes and ordinances must apply to all properties regardless of organization, entity, church or business and it is in the best interest of the city of Clearwater and the citizens that call Clearwater home.

Bruce Rector

Running for Seat 2

The city should encourage all property owners throughout the city to develop their properties within the parameters of the comprehensive plan. This includes many vacant properties along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, Drew Street, and U.S. 19. The growth and development of the entire community is important for the future success of Clearwater.

Eliseo Santana

Running for Seat 2

Our City Council should constantly and continuously address the issue of stagnation of real estate within our borders. As a council member I will offer whatever assistance we have at our disposal to help our property owners to positively improve and utilize their holdings to the benefit of all our residents.

Lina Teixeira

Running for Seat 2

It is imperative that the city get involved in activating our storefronts regardless of the ownership. A dialogue must ensue to determine intent. However, this is a part of a larger issue of not properly activating our economic assets and doing a poor job in connecting them. Transportation and mobility is essential for us to be able to properly stimulate our communities, downtown and the beaches. I will work handedly with TBARTA, PSTA and Forward Pinellas in order to develop public and private partnerships that would focus on mobility and connectivity in order to attract people to our downtown and beaches. This would be done in an effort to build a live work play and stay environment. Furthermore, I will work with the city manager and the chamber to support and or develop programs that would attract new industry to Clearwater, and also help grow our existing businesses. It is of the utmost importance that we add new and diverse partners to our existing stakeholders and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Kathleen Beckman

Running for Seat 3

I think the city should take action to encourage economic activity in empty buildings/storefronts throughout Clearwater. I don’t think we should develop policy to target a specific neighborhood. What is good for downtown should also be good for other parts of our city. An empty storefront on MLK or Drew St. is just as uninviting as one on Cleveland Street. The city can look to strengthen ordinances and code enforcement to require the upkeep of unoccupied buildings. I believe we can also take a more positive route — we can look to incentivize new businesses. Perhaps the city can reduce permit costs if occupancy/opening occurs within a targeted time frame. The city can also streamline the permitting/inspection process; the city can offer a mentor or holistic support to those who want to open a business anywhere in the city. This mentorship/support should continue or be made available for the first five years of a new business. The city can offer tax incentives for new businesses.

Bob Cundiff

Running for Seat 3

I would consult with the city attorney about what actions can be taken should any property stagnate or become an eyesore. Each property would have to be evaluated individually as to what level of stagnation it is in and whether the property owner intends to conform to all city standards regarding the condition of property. Same with the ownership of empty lots and undeveloped storefronts.

Bud Elias

Running for Seat 3

Any and every tool available to the city should be utilized to address that stagnation and there is nothing that I would take off the table within those parameters as a city councilman.

Scott Thomas

Running for Seat 3

All too often we focus only on the Church of Scientology’s presence in downtown but forget that there is much more to our downtown. It’s important to encourage residents to visit the many great events and businesses that are currently driving the future of downtown.

The Church of Scientology’s presence in downtown has been a major issue in Clearwater for more than 40 years. Please complete this sentence: "I view Scientology ... A: Like any other private organization in Clearwater. B: Like a hostile force with goals that conflict with the city’s. C: Like a potential partner in the redevelopment of downtown. D: Other (add your answer)

Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer

Running for mayor

Talking about “the church” gives the impression every Scientologist thinks and behaves the same way. In many religions/corporations, individuals use the entity for personal gain, or behave unscrupulously or illegally. Felonies committed by Scientologists or anyone else should be prosecuted, including conspiracy, fraud, stalking, harassment and human trafficking.

Frank Hibbard

Running for mayor

I view Scientology as a large corporate-like entity and the city should expect all such organizations to be good citizens that contribute to the betterment of our community. Clearwater needs leaders that will hold entities accountable and ensure that they make a positive contribution.

Bill Jonson

Running for mayor

My view of Scientology could at times include all these options. Despite unfavorable ownership trends that are not desirable in any financially thriving city, the city has no choice but to address all private property owners equally. Where possible, open communication could determine potential mutual partnership opportunities.

Morton Myers

Running for mayor

Did not respond

Mark Bunker

Running for Seat 2

I view Scientology as a corporate entity that behaves as if it were a foreign power, governed by its own laws, with its own internal justice system, culture, customs and dialect. A country led by a petty dictator whose nation was forged around the fragile, paranoid, psychosis of its founder. An organization that pretends to be benevolent yet whose actions betray it. A bully with enough money to keep pushing people around only to find that it has pushed everyone away. A company that knows how to create a pretty building but not a future. A callous character wearing a clerical collar that has sucked the life and money out of downtown Clearwater for long enough.

Michael Mannino

Running for Seat 2

I view Scientology as operating for over 40 years with goals that conflict with the city’s goals and plans, although they should operate and be treated like any other private organization in Clearwater. Their footprint of over $460 million in downtown real estate makes the COS a potential partner in the redevelopment of downtown but their unfortunate lack of open, honest and transparent communication in the sunshine has been a long-standing behavior.

Bruce Rector

Running for Seat 2

The City of Clearwater is bigger than any one individual, organization or institution. Council decisions should be based on community-wide needs and interests. I am for strong leadership that will represent the interests of all of our community in the city’s communications and dialogue with Scientology about the future and development of Clearwater.

Eliseo Santana

Running for Seat 2

I view Scientology, like all property owners in our city, as a real partner in the redevelopment of our downtown area.

Lina Teixeira

Running for Seat 2

As a large and well-financed institution that should bear its share of responsibility to revitalize all of Clearwater.

Kathleen Beckman

Running for Seat 3

I view Scientology as having a significant presence in downtown Clearwater, and I would advocate engaging the COS to participate in a positive way in the development of downtown Clearwater, for the benefit of all.

Bob Cundiff

Running for Seat 3

Scientology undeniably has a large presence in downtown. As a council member, I have observed and taken part in our city staff working with the Scientologists where it benefits the city, such as the land swaps that occurred last year. While I will always seek cooperation where possible, in the end I will always act and vote in a manner that puts the interests of Clearwater first, no matter what entity we’re dealing with.

Bud Elias

Running for Seat 3

I view it as a private organization. But just like any private organization that has plans to increase its footprint substantially, we as a city have to work to ensure that their vision for Clearwater is one that fits the vision and demands of the citizens of Clearwater as a whole. Just as we wouldn’t sell out all of our city’s downtown characteristics to one major corporation that could potentially harm the unique quality of life and distinct downtown characteristics we would all like to see here at home, so too, we shouldn’t just let the church go unabated in changing the entire downtown footprint without safeguards.

Scott Thomas

Running for Seat 3

Obviously, the church has a much larger footprint, and that has expanded over time. But they should be treated like any other private organization in Clearwater.

When you are out in the community talking to voters as a council candidate, do residents bring up the topic of Scientology frequently, sometimes or never? What are the most common questions/comments you hear from residents on this topic?

Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer

Running for mayor

Residents bring up Scientology frequently. Many say they’re afraid to go downtown or avoid downtown. Many say we shouldn’t spend money on downtown because most residents will not benefit. Many rail against the church’s tax-exempt status when what they seem to want is for the church to go away, though removing the tax exemption would not force the church out of the city (even if removing the tax exemption was within the city’s control).

Frank Hibbard

Running for mayor

Frequently, it is the most talked about subject when I meet with citizens, and rightfully so. This has been a growing concern. Comments range from “we should give up on downtown” to people who want to do more. People are angry, resigned, sad and some are still hopeful. It is an unusual variable, unique to Clearwater, but I still love our city and will stay optimistic about our future.

Bill Jonson

Running for mayor

Sometimes. The community has a very wide range of questions and opinions relating to this topic, and the most frequent concern is the lack of activity happening downtown. Rightfully so, the taxpayers of this city deserve property owners that are looking to invest back into the economy of the city.

Morton Myers

Running for mayor

Did not respond

Mark Bunker

Running for Seat 2

Frequently. People tell me they avoid the downtown because of Scientology. They don’t feel comfortable downtown and find it kind of creepy. Often they talk of the uniformed members as robots or cold and arrogant, not knowing how tough life can be for them in the Sea Org. They think Scientology exerts too much control over the city and that things are hopeless because the city is afraid of Scientology. A good first step would be to show that we are not afraid.

Michael Mannino

Running for Seat 2

My wife and I have knocked on hundreds of neighborhood doors and have had conversations with thousands of Clearwater citizens and eight out of 10 times the word Scientology comes up and is frequently the first question asked. The most common questions repeatedly asked by citizens are, “What are you going to do about Scientology?” and “How can we get rid of Scientology?”

Bruce Rector

Running for Seat 2

Voters bring up the subject of Scientology frequently. When I ask them about their specific thoughts and concerns about Scientology’s presence in Clearwater, I get a wide variety of responses. The most common theme of the responses is that taxpayer money should only be spent to improve downtown Clearwater in ways that benefit the entire community, not any one group, business owner or institution.

Eliseo Santana

Running for Seat 2

I find that the topic of Scientology comes up more frequently if there is an article in the Tampa Bay Times concerning the church. On reflection, I am not surprised. Voters in our city that express an interest in our municipal elections are particularly well informed. This is a tribute to our highly acclaimed Tampa Bay Times and its widespread circulation. When our paper’s lead story of the day is about storms and weather it becomes the source of the most asked questions. If the Tampa Bay Times lead story concerns parks, recreation facilities or libraries, that becomes the topic of the day. The same can be said of queries I received on the police department, guns, our schools, public safety, sanitation and community service. This is a tribute to the service your newspaper does for our residents. The most common question or comment about the Church of Scientology are about their vast and varied property holdings. Again, a topic our home newspaper brought to the public’s attention.

Lina Teixeira

Running for Seat 2

Frequently. I often hear from residents that they fear and avoid the church. I would like to encourage them to live, work and play where they so choose. Clearwater is for everyone, not for a select few. I will fight for our neighborhoods and all members of the Clearwater community to build a vibrant economy that works for all its residents. I will lead by example.

Kathleen Beckman

Running for Seat 3

I have talked to thousands of residents throughout Clearwater. Residents frequently ask if I’m a Scientologist (I am not) and “What about downtown?” Many residents want to be sure that the COS is paying its fair share of property taxes for the buildings being used for non-church activities. This is certainly a legitimate concern because we need a complete tax base to support the infrastructure and services supplied to all residents of Clearwater.

Bob Cundiff

Running for Seat 3

Answer: Sometimes. The most frequent inquiries I hear are whether Scientology pays taxes and if they are interested in cooperating with the city. I frequently get asked what is Scientology planning to do with all of the property it and its parishioners have acquired in the downtown area. I have encouraged the city management to find out about that request so that information can be relayed back to the citizens of Clearwater.

Bud Elias

Running for Seat 3

Frequently. Scientology is certainly one of them, in conjunction with the future of downtown. Beyond that, our neighborhoods face specific issues neighborhood — by neighborhood.

Scott Thomas

Running for Seat 3

Frequently. I believe residents are most concerned about the uncertainty, and understandably so. I believe that in opening dialogue, this can help bring transparency to the topic. Transparency is key in communication and in government.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement