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Can new Clearwater council member, Scientologists keep their distance?

Mark Bunker wants to serve on the Downtown Development Board. Legally, he must stay 10 feet away from Scientologists on the panel. It’s got nothing to do with a virus.
Clearwater City Council member Mark Bunker, a long-time Scientology critic, wants to serve on a city board with several Scientologists. A judge's order from 20 years ago could make that difficult.
Clearwater City Council member Mark Bunker, a long-time Scientology critic, wants to serve on a city board with several Scientologists. A judge's order from 20 years ago could make that difficult. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 13, 2020

CLEARWATER — It’s usually a routine matter when the City Council meets after an election to assign new members to boards and committees.

But the presence of one new member, long-time Church of Scientology critic Mark Bunker, has created an unprecedented dynamic that is turning a typical exercise into one giving them pause.

When Bunker volunteered Monday to serve on the city’s Downtown Development Board, City Attorney Pam Akin pointed out that a 20-year-old court injunction prevents him and any Scientologist from coming within 10 feet of each other. As of October, a majority of the development board’s members are Scientology parishioners.

“I’m taking a look at this injunction, but it appears to be applicable," Akin said. “They would logistically need to be separated from each other, which is unusual since they meet, I believe, in this (council) room, so there is that consideration.”

A Pinellas County judge issued the injunction in 2001, requiring members of Scientology and nine prominent critics, including Bunker, to stay 10-feet away from each other. Following months of chaotic clashes, the order also set boundaries for protests by those nine members of the Lisa McPherson Trust, a nonprofit established in memory of a woman who died in Scientology’s care.

Fast forward nearly two decades.

Today, four Scientologists are among the seven members of the development board, an elected body that has a modest budget to market downtown Clearwater. As an ex-offico, or non-voting member of the board, Bunker would have to share the dais with them.

Bunker was elected to the council last month along with Mayor Frank Hibbard and council member Kathleen Beckman.

Council members on Monday signed each other up for a variety of committees, from pension advisory board to Tampa Bay estuary policy board. But they tabled the appointment to the development board until Thursday, with Hibbard noting he wanted “to ponder some things.”

In a later interview, Hibbard said he wanted to make sure Bunker understood the role of an ex-officio member, which is to represent the city’s priorities. Hibbard also volunteered for the position and said he is interested in advocating for the revitalization of the depressed downtown at a time when the church has control over more real estate than ever.

In October, the Tampa Bay Times reported that since 2017, companies tied to the church spent $103 million buying nearly 100 retail properties around the downtown waterfront.

“If he can have a positive influence on the process as an ex-officio member, I am fine with that, which would be the same statement I would make for anyone who wants to be on any board,” Hibbard said. “If they are not going to be a positive contributor and make a positive impact, we need to rethink whether they are the right person on the committee.”

Bunker campaigned for the council on a promise to end what has been a decades-long pattern of reluctance by elected officials to publicly discuss Scientology’s impact downtown.

After establishing its international spiritual headquarters downtown in 1975, the church soon became the largest downtown property owner with the buildings it acquired for religious purposes. But after the series of companies tied to Scientology bought the majority of retail property on every block within walking distance of the waterfront, the church now has indisputable control over the success of the city’s revitalization efforts.

“They bought all of these buildings and they are not letting us know what they are going to do,” Bunker said in an interview Monday. “We need to be able to ask these questions. I don’t think it’s irrational to say we need to try a different approach.”

Police Chief Dan Slaughter said the city has no role in enforcing the injunction besides taking a report from a party making a complaint.

“Anybody who would have issues and felt the injunction applied would have to use the court, not the police department, to seek remedies,” Slaughter said.

Times have drastically changed since 2000, when the Lisa McPherson Trust rented an office downtown and protests between the sides were a regular occurrence.

But that hasn’t stopped the church from trying to use the injunction against Bunker. In 2013, an attorney for Scientology called the St. Andrew’s Cove Condo Association to say Bunker had rented a unit next to a parishioner and should be evicted due to the injunction, then-association president Ted Reinhard said on Monday.

“I explained that he passed the background check and has been an exemplary member of the community so there’s no cause to either deny his application or evict him,” Reinhard said. “(The attorney) went on to say that the HOA and I personally could be sued if we failed to comply. I don’t care to be threatened so I told her to put it writing and I’ll forward it to the HOA’s attorney and never call me again.”

Before his election, Bunker as a citizen regularly addressed the development board with concerns about how residents avoided downtown due to the church’s presence.

In October, development board member and parishioner Paris Morfopoulos gave a searing rebuttal.

“If you would, for a moment, take any of his written or public comments and substitute the word ‘Jew’ for ‘Scientologist,’ it would become very clear to you what we’re talking about,” Morfopoulos read from a written response. “Almost 100 years ago in Germany, an ideologue named Adolf ran for public office warning about the threat posed by the Jews to their communities and urging that something be done about them. We all know how that turned out.”

Neither Morfopoulos, nor two other development board members who are parishioners — business owners Shahab Emrani and Keanan Kintzel — responded to calls or emails requesting comment about Bunker’s potential appointment to the board.

The fourth development board member who is a parishioner, real estate agent Ray Cassano, said any people who work against a group like Scientology “are not good people,” before hanging up on a reporter.

Bunker said his efforts are not to antagonize Scientology. His goal, he said, is to verbalize questions many have been afraid to ask while the future of downtown rests largely in the church’s grasp.

“I know this is a big concern of the city’s: Am I going to erupt a war?” he said. "And no, that’s not my purpose at all. My purpose is to be reasonable and rational and get answers.”