CLEARWATER — On Wednesday, the Downtown Development Board unanimously passed a resolution drafted by board member Caitlein Jammo that acknowledged systemic racism. Then the board allocated $10,000 for art projects or events that address inequity.
“I don’t think we can achieve true downtown revitalization when you have members of our community that are facing these types of issues and these types of inequalities,” said Jammo.
But later in the meeting, board chair Paris Morfopoulos, who is also a Scientology parishioner, took the urgency around addressing systemic racism further, proposing the board adopt an anti-discrimination policy that would allow him to eject from downtown development board meetings anybody who makes discriminatory statements.
City Council member Mark Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic, suggested it was actually a veiled attempt to ban him from continuing to discuss the influence of the Church of Scientology, downtown’s largest property owner.
Following his election to the City Council in March, the council appointed Bunker to serve as a non-voting member of the Downtown Development Board, a largely advisory body with a modest budget for promoting downtown. Four of the seven development board members are Scientology parishioners and the four spoke publicly against Bunker’s appointment, saying his decades of alleging fraud and abuse in the church amounted to anti-religious bigotry.
“What’s happening in the country that’s tearing the whole country apart at the moment is intolerance and injustice and just basic unfairness directed at minority groups or disadvantaged groups and I think we need to make a statement that we will not tolerate it in our environment here,” Morfopoulos said in proposing his policy.
The proposal caught Community Redevelopment Agency director Amanda Thompson and board attorney Elise Winters off guard, who had not seen or reviewed the language ahead of the meeting and worried about adopting law on the spot. Mayor Frank Hibbard, who also serves as a non-voting member with Bunker, urged Morfopoulos wait to make sure the language was precise.
“There are a lot of people that say things that I find repugnant but they also have a First Amendment right to have an opinion and I would be cautious about shutting people down based on certain criteria,” Hibbard said.
But board member Ray Cassano supported the policy, saying: “I’m a Scientologist and I have lived in Clearwater for a long time and 95 percent of the people are just fine ... but there’s a few that don’t care for it and they suppress it.”
"I think Mr. Cassano gave the game away when he brought up Scientology as something he was worried about being discussed here," Bunker said. "I think this was introduced specifically because I was put on the board."
In his campaign for council, Bunker ran on a platform of addressing Scientology’s involvement in the unprecedented number of downtown properties bought by companies tied to the church in recent years.
Winters, the board attorney, noted Morfopoulos had described the proposed policy differently at various points throughout the conversation and it wasn’t clear what would be adopted as law if the board approved his motion.
“This is the kind of motion that should be particularly and carefully stated, and it’s not,” Winters said.
She warned the board that federal law already prohibits the city from discriminating against anybody. And if they adopted the policy that night, they would have a legally unsound law on the books for at least a month until she could come back with proposed revisions.
Morfopoulos, however, was insistent they adopt it that night to make “a statement" against discrimination of all kinds and that the language could be changed later. In explaining hypothetical scenarios where citizens had First Amendment rights to make controversial statements to the board, Winters addressed the board’s unique dynamic.
“Anybody has a right to come up and say I think downtown would be better if we — and I’m just going to hit the issue on the head — I think downtown would be better if the Church of Scientology was not here,” Winters said. “You can say ‘that’s not on our agenda, that’s not our purpose and we don’t have the power to do that,’ but they still have the right to say it.”
Jammo, who is not a member of Scientology, proposed the board instead direct staff to draft a proposed anti-discrimination policy to bring back to the board for a vote at a future meeting.
Her motion passed unanimously.