CLEARWATER — In his first official effort to address the Church of Scientology’s influence downtown, newly elected City Council member Mark Bunker will serve as a non-voting member on the Downtown Development Board, a mostly advisory body with a modest budget for marketing to attract businesses and residents.
But the dynamic is unprecedented. Four of the seven development board members are Scientology parishioners, putting Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic, directly in conversation with a board that has never fully grappled with the church’s role in downtown’s struggles.
The council voted unanimously on Thursday to approve Bunker’s appointment despite passionate appeals made by the four development board members who are parishioners and three other prominent businessmen who are Scientologists.
The church members painted Bunker’s two-decades of speaking against what he calls fraud and abuse in Scientology as bigoted and anti-religious. Bunker countered, saying his advocacy is not about hating Scientologists, but exposing policies church leaders use to “split apart” families, place staff in work camps and financially exploit members.
“Having this bigot sit in at the DDB meetings would be similar to having David Duke sit in at an NAACP conference,” said Keanan Kintzel, a member of the development board and a Scientologist who owns Buzzazz Advertising and Marketing on Cleveland Street. “Grotesque, unsafe and intolerable.”
Council member Hoyt Hamilton’s motion to appoint Bunker came with the requirement that Mayor Frank Hibbard serve with him as a non-voting member for Hibbard’s “ability to control” situations. Bunker is filling the vacancy on the board left by former council member Jay Polglaze, who did not run for another council term in March. The second non-voting seat was held by council member David Allbritton, but he volunteered his seat to Hibbard.
“If (Bunker) gets on this board and is there strictly as a disruption and creating confusion, I will not hesitate at the next council meeting after that happens to make a motion to replace him on that board, so I’m willing to give him the chance,” Hamilton said.
Bunker’s appointment comes with a logistical wrinkle.
A 2001 court injunction prevents any member of Scientology and Bunker from coming within 10 feet of each other. A Pinellas County judge issued the injunction in 2001 following months of chaotic protests downtown between members of Scientology and the Lisa McPherson Trust, a nonprofit established in memory of a woman who died in Scientology’s care. Bunker worked as the group’s filmmaker.
Bunker on Thursday said his last protest against the church was 20 years ago. His successful run in the March 17 election was centered on a promise to not only address what he calls fraud and abuse in the church but also to raise questions about recent Scientology-connected real estate purchases.
“I’m not leading the people of Clearwater to the Fort Harrison (Hotel) with pitchforks and torches," Bunker said, referring to the church’s signature property in the city. “I’m doing what the people of Clearwater are interested in doing: finding out what the heck is going on and try to do something about it. That’s why I was elected.”
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 since 2017, a series of companies tied to Scientology bought nearly 100 retail properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront, giving the church a large measure of control over the success of the city’s revitalization efforts.
City Attorney Pam Akin on Thursday did not raise concern about the injunction. At a work session Monday, she said Bunker and members of Scientology would logistically need to be seated 10-feet apart.
But several of the Scientology members who spoke Thursday hinted at the legal jeopardy the city could face with Bunker on the board.
Development board member and parishioner Paris Morfopoulos noted a video taped confrontation he had with Bunker during one of the 2000-era protests and called him “a professional bigot.”
“He now says he wants to make a positive contribution to the downtown,” Morfopoulos said. “Can he really be believed?”
Council member Kathleen Beckman, who was elected on March 17 with Bunker and Hibbard, noted how most residents during her campaign raised concerns about Scientology’s influence. Given Bunker’s background, she said she was hoping he could help establish trust in the community in dealing with the church.
“Who better to report out the truth of how that board is operating and how they are working to revitalize downtown than him?” Beckman said. “There wouldn’t be any suspicions to residents who have suspicions if, quote, their guy is down there reporting back.”
Bunker’s appointment also presents a more theological complication. A member of Scientology who runs afoul of the church can be declared a “suppressive person,” who is seen as a criminal and an enemy with whom the church is at war. Such a declaration requires spouses to divorce, children to excommunicate from parents and business partners to split.
But critics, activists and journalists who are not parishioners but speak out against Scientology, like Bunker, are also deemed suppressive people whom parishioners should avoid at all costs, said Chris Shelton, who served 17 years in the Sea Org, Scientology’s full-time workforce before defecting in 2013.
A Scientologist having to work in a public setting with a suppressive person is not impossible, but Shelton said they would be seen as an enemy on par with Hitler.
“The bottom line is under any circumstances, no Scientologist wants to be spending much time with people the church doesn’t like and will keep all interactions to whatever the bare minimum would be,” Shelton said.
While encouraging the council to reject Bunker’s appointment, Brett Miller, founder of the parishioner-run Citizens for Social Reform political nonprofit, warned the church would not be shaken.
“Scientologists have been part of this community for 45 years," Miller said. "That’s longer than Countryside has been part of the City of Clearwater. It’s longer than Ruth Eckerd Hall has existed. It’s longer than the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has been open to the public. It’s longer than the (Toronto) Blue Jays has existed as a baseball team. And it’s longer than the (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) have been playing football. Truthfully, it’s only a handful of zealots, self-appointed elites and a struggling newspaper that has created this situation in our city.”
But Bunker promised to work productively and to seek answers residents have wanted for decades about the church’s plans.
“I would like to start a communication and Scientology is a huge aspect of why the downtown has not been able to develop since they came to town in 1975,” Bunker said. “We need to have a different, more logical approach and not be afraid to say the word Scientology.”