CLEARWATER — During the last city council election, candidates went out of their way to avoid using the s-word: Scientology.
“One of the biggest problems trying to move Clearwater forward is getting people to communicate openly and honestly,” City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said at a 2018 election forum.
When asked later if he was referring to the Church of Scientology and its secretive nature, Hamilton confirmed he was. By not calling it out directly, he was “trying not to poke the bear.”
So it has gone for decades in Clearwater. Scientology’s massive influence over downtown’s present and future hovers over the city like a fog. Few elected officials have been willing to publicly address the church’s impact.
That all changed this year.
In his bid for City Council Seat 2, longtime Scientology critic Mark Bunker, 63, has publicly discussed downtown’s largest property owner in ways not seen in decades: like his campaign call for the city to urge that the IRS revoke Scientology’s tax exempt status for alleged fraud and abuse.
Bunker’s platform to address “the biggest problem that no one will talk about” has come to define the race for the open Seat 2. The other four candidates have responded by explaining how they plan to deal with the church.
But they’ve also tried to push their platforms beyond Scientology.
Mike Mannino, 42, the owner of an athletic event business, has advocated for removing what he calls “red tape” holding back the city’s business climate and soliciting more resident feedback on the Imagine Clearwater downtown waterfront project.
Attorney Bruce Rector, 56, is pushing the need for a regional transportation plan and a fiscally conservative vision.
Eliseo Santana, a 61-year-old retired communications maintenance supervisor at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, has made his priorities affordable housing and attracting businesses downtown.
Fashion designer and bar owner Lina Teixeira, 50, wants to champion affordable housing and building a strong local economy.
But all have acknowledged the concerns they’ve heard from residents about Scientology’s influence over downtown.
• • •
Between 2017 and 2019, Scientology and companies tied to the church bought 100 properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront. Many of the buildings remain vacant and empty lots sit undeveloped. The church has not disclosed what, if any, plans it has for the holdings.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
But there are fears that the church could intentionally leave downtown barren and undermine Imagine Clearwater, the city’s $64 million waterfront redevelopment. Mannino has proposed imposing vacancy fees on property owners who leave buildings vacant. He proposes verifying business tax receipts for addresses to ensure they are “not a shell.”
“We’re finally being forced to talk about it and have these conversations that frankly should have been discussed and had 20 years ago,” Mannino said.
Mannino says he is the candidate best equipped to address not only Scientology’s land holdings, but other issues like revitalizing North Greenwood and navigating the search for a new city manager.
He said he delayed running for a City Council seat in 2018 to obtain his master’s degree in public administration. That has prepared him to run in 2020.
“It’s electing strong leadership that has the ability to unite a fractured city,” said Mannino, who noted at a Feb. 12 forum he is not a Scientologist. “You have to elect leadership that can affect change.”
Teixeira said she would like the church to be transparent about its 10-year plan for its downtown campus. She also says she is the best-equipped candidate because of her “solutions-based platform" and record as an entrepreneur who invested in the city by opening business downtown.
As president of the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association, Teixeira has helped business owners navigate city codes. She has pushed concerns from merchants about parking to city officials. And in May 2018, Teixeira opened Pour Yours wine bar on Cleveland Street to encourage other business owners to take a chance on downtown.
“There’s no guesswork when it comes to me,” she said. “How will she do it? Well she’s already done it.”
• • •
The suspicion about Scientology’s influence in this election is so strong that Teixeira took to Facebook on Jan. 28 to address it. She posted a video telling residents there are business owners like herself who are not Scientologists who are trying to revitalize downtown on their own — not to benefit the church.
“I am not a Scientologist,” Teixeira said in the video. “The fact that I have (campaign) signs all over downtown Clearwater does not mean that I’m being endorsed by the church. It just means that as president of the merchants association, I have supported and I have represented all the merchants and they have honored me with their endorsement.”
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The issue of Scientology’s vast downtown holdings came up during the Feb. 12 election forum, when moderator Al Ruechel asked candidates about the impact of having such a large number of tax-exempt properties in downtown.
Rector said there had already been much discussion on that topic, that there are other issues concerning residents.
“When I talk to people out in neighborhoods all over Clearwater, they care about their own neighborhoods, their streets and roads, they care about jobs, they care about education,” he said. “The number one thing they talk to me about is traffic congestion, and that is where I want to focus our tax money and time.”
Rector has pitched his 30-year background in leadership, including serving as president of Junior Chamber International, as proof he can build a responsive city government, grow the tax base and reduce traffic.
When Ruechel asked about the perception that Scientology discourages residents from living downtown, Rector first made a point of explaining that he is a member of Calvary Baptist Church, not a Scientologist.
He said he was not willing “to fight a war with Scientology” over its tax-exempt status that would waste tax dollars.
“I’m all for making sure that Scientology does not have control over downtown Clearwater or Clearwater," Rector said. “But let’s not waste taxpayer money trying to remove a tax exemption that the city of Clearwater has absolutely no control over removing.”
• • •
Seat 2 is one of three City Council seats and six referendum questions on this year’s ballot. March 17 is Election Day.
The most friction in this council race has played out between Bunker and Santana.
At a Jan. 15 candidate forum, about five audience members began heckling Bunker during his opening statement, shouting that he was a “bigot” when he started talking about Scientology’s impact on downtown.
One of the hecklers was Van Farber, Santana’s campaign manager. Farber confirmed he also brought Santana what he described as “opposition research” on Bunker — an old injunction — to the forum.
Bunker once worked with the Lisa McPherson Trust, a nonprofit established in the name of a woman who died in 1995 while under the church’s care in Clearwater, to advocate against alleged fraud and abuse by Scientology. In 2000, a Pinellas County judge issued an injunction against Bunker and eight others, forbidding them from coming within 10 feet of Scientologists.
Afterward, Santana told the Tampa Bay Times that he did not expect Farber to participate in the heckling or bring him the injunction. Like his fellow candidates, Santana also said he is not a Scientologist.
But Santana said he objects to what he calls “hate” directed toward the church.
“As long as it is an adversarial type of conversation, there cannot be a forward path,” Santana said. “I am not for or against anyone. I am for the citizens of Clearwater.”
Santana’s first run for office was an unsuccessful 2016 bid for Pinellas County School Board.
His past financial issues include a 2012 foreclosure, a 2013 bankruptcy and a final judgement against him in January for $4,000 of unpaid credit card debt. Santana said he’s struggled just like “millions of people affected by the financial collapse.”
Bunker filed for bankruptcy in 2018 as a result of medical debt, which he says allows him to connect with voters “just trying to get by.”
As for Santana’s allegations of religious intolerance, Bunker said his goal is to hold Scientology’s leadership accountable, not to attack individual parishioners.
Besides advocating against Scientology’s tax exempt status, Bunker also proposes training Clearwater police on Scientology’s policies that forbid reporting crimes to law enforcement, educating city staff about Scientology’s history and imposing daily fines on vacant properties.
2020 CLEARWATER CITY ELECTIONS
City voters will decide three City Council races and six ballot referendums. Here’s what voters need to know:
MAIL BALLOTS: To request one, send an email to email@example.com or call (727) 464-8683. The deadline to request a mail ballot is March 7 at 5 p.m.
EARLY VOTING: Runs from March 7-15. Weekday early voting is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Weekend hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To find locations, go to votepinellas.com.
ELECTION DAY: March 17. Polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.