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Clearwater council struggles to address Scientology’s impact on downtown

Council member Mark Bunker said the city should ask the FBI to investigate the church. None of his colleagues agreed.

CLEARWATER — The new City Council on Monday conducted its first public discussion on an issue voters raised as a top concern in the recent election: The Church of Scientology’s impact on downtown.

The topic, added to Monday’s work session agenda by council member Mark Bunker, produced a candid and in-depth airing of views rarely spoken at City Hall over the course of Clearwater’s strained history with the church.

But other than a general desire for a downtown rebirth, the council concluded its hour-long dialogue with no plan to seek answers on Scientology’s involvement in significant amounts of property acquired over the past three years by companies tied to the church. Bunker received no support for his proposal that the city ask the FBI to investigate Scientology for alleged racketeering related to the real estate purchases.

Council members talked briefly about their shared reluctance to involve the FBI, dwelling more on their opposition to Bunker’s secondary proposal: that the city hold hearings for the public to air concerns about alleged fraud and abuse in the church.

“I don’t know why we couldn’t reach to the FBI and say 'Look at what is happening here, look at these red flags,” Bunker said.

City Council member Mark Bunker at a candidate forum in February before the March 17 election. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

“If there is wrongdoing that’s uncovered on a scale like the RICO Act, then definitely the IRS should reconsider the tax exempt status and stripping Scientology of that would bring money back into the city and show that the city is willing to not just sit back and continue to be stabbed in the back."

In October, the Tampa Bay Times reported that over the previous three years, limited liability companies tied to Scientology bought about 100 properties around the center of downtown, the same depressed footprint where the city is trying to lure retail, restaurants and entertainment.

RELATED: ClearTakeover: How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years

Of the $103 million the companies spent buying the properties, $99 million was in cash. The spate of purchases began in early 2017 around two events: the city moving forward on the now $64 million Imagine Clearwater plan to renovate the city-owned waterfront and the city’s snubbing of Scientology leader David Miscavige by buying a coveted vacant lot both the city and the church had bid on.

In March, three new members were elected to the five-member council, bringing a majority of new officials in to steer the city’s revitalization efforts. Besides Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic, the group included Kathleen Beckman, a retired teacher, and Frank Hibbard, who previously served two terms as mayor.

The council on Monday advocated focusing on Imagine Clearwater to give residents and visitors a reason to come downtown. Officials did not acknowledge that even if the project is built out as planned, the purchases of commercial property around the waterfront give the church significant control over whether retail and restaurants follow.

“Whether you consider Scientology a religion or not, they are here,” council member David Allbritton said. If the city held public hearings, he said “it’s going to do nothing for telling a positive story about downtown.”

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment about the discussion. On Friday, Shaw sent the city copies of various studies and church materials, including a 2014 study the church commissioned about its economic impact and a 2014 city consultant study that urged the church and city to work together on revitalizing downtown.

Allbritton urged communication with Miscavige, like two conversations that have taken place since the publication of the Times’ October investigation. City manager Bill Horne, city attorney Pam Akin and assistant city manager Michael Delk met with Miscavige in November and January to begin communication after three years of silence. But they did not press Miscavige about his involvement with the newly acquired properties, and the council on Monday did not urge them to seek those answers.

“If they’ve legally acquired those properties — whether they sit on them or not, or whether they paid cash or paid four times as much — I totally agree it’s a red flag" Beckman said. "I totally agree it’s not the norm, and it makes you wonder. But you don’t have a legal right to demand an answer for it.”

Although companies tied to Scientology have brought uncertainty by buying most of downtown retail property, Beckman said the public should still enjoy the existing businesses and public waterfront.

“If you have documented evidence, that needs to go to an attorney or a police department or whatever those venues are, it’s not a City Council venue for that," Beckman said. "I just think it antagonizes people and I don’t think it’s real productive that way.”

Allbritton said instead of calling the FBI or holding public hearings about the church’s impact, the city should be sharing positive stories about the people and businesses downtown.

“It’s very hard for me to grapple with this and to be positive to people that say ‘Why aren’t you doing anything about it?’” Allbritton said. “Well what do you suggest I do? Give me a positive thing that I can do to really help this situation.”

Bunker, who has been advocating against what he calls fraud and abuse in Scientology for decades, said he considered pursuing accountability for potential crimes a positive step.

“We haven’t had any answers,” Bunker said. “You sat down and talked with Miscavige. What did he tell you?”

Hibbard acknowledged that Scientology’s presence dissuades many residents from visiting downtown. But he said the city must continue working to build something for residents to enjoy and take ownership of what it can control.

“I can’t worry about what hasn’t worked,” Hibbard said. “I have to figure out what’s going to work.”

Council member Hoyt Hamilton also said the city doesn’t “have the time or the resources to even worry” about whether a federal agency will investigate Scientology’s behavior. He said the city should focus on advancing Imagine Clearwater, which is still in the design phase.

In an interview after the meeting, Bunker said he is still concerned Scientology may be planning to sabotage Imagine Clearwater by sitting on the newly acquired property and preventing businesses from filling vacant storefronts.

A single City Council member can not request an agency act on the city’s behalf, but they can share information, which Bunker said he intends to do next.

“My ask essentially was can we go to the FBI and report this,” Bunker said. “I guess my next step is to turn to the FBI myself.”

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