CLEARWATER — In July, the Downtown Development Board amended its rules to ban anyone from talking about issues “outside the purview” of its authority — which isn’t much beyond spending a modest budget to promote downtown.
The rule change came four months after Mark Bunker won election to the Clearwater City Council on a platform of addressing allegations of fraud and abuse in the Church of Scientology, which has its international headquarters downtown.
One month after his election, the city council appointed Bunker and Mayor Frank Hibbard to serve as the two non-voting members on the Downtown Development Board.
Since four of the seven Downtown Development Board members who were also Scientology parishioners had protested his appointment, Bunker fought the July rule change, calling it a direct attempt to silence him.
Now Bunker said the board is attempting to get rid of him altogether.
The Downtown Development Board voted 5-1 on Wednesday to request the city council appoint one member, rather than two, to serve as its ex-officio member.
Two council members have been appointed to the development board every year since 1987 to facilitate communication as each body works to revive downtown. Development board attorney Elise Winters said the change is being requested now after 34 years because it’s become clear “one person can handle it.”
But Winters singled out Bunker, noting he has made “a maximum of two comments” that count as representing the council while Hibbard has communicated most of the city business. The rest of Bunker’s statements over the past year, Winters said, were made “in a personal capacity” noting his comments about Scientology.
“I have been prevented from saying the word Scientology since you last passed one of these resolutions,” Bunker responded, referencing the July rule change. “I think it’s important to have this on the record that really this is about Scientology. That’s the subtext. That’s the subterfuge.”
The development board passed the resolution 5-1 with little discussion after Winters’ presentation, with board member Festus Porbeni voting no and Shahab Emrani absent. Only Porbeni, who is not a member of Scientology, questioned what was the harm in having two non-voting members.
The city council is expected to assign its members to various city, county and regional boards later this month, as it does every April.
Winters said the council could reject the change entirely and keep its two appointments to the development board. Bunker noted the council could also accept the change and then appoint him as the sole member.
When the council appointed Bunker to the development board last April, board member Keanan Kintzel, who is a member of Scientology, said: “Having this bigot sit in at the DDB meetings would be similar to having David Duke sit in at an NAACP conference.”
Board members Paris Morfopoulos, Ray Cassano and Shahab Emrani, who are also members of Scientology, also spoke against Bunker’s appointment. In October, a fifth Scientology parishioner, real estate broker Terry Novitsky, was also elected to the seven-member board.
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.
But the downtown development board exists to provide grants to businesses and fund marketing efforts, like the $30,000 it awarded on Wednesday to the Downtown Clearwater Merchant’s Association to pay for live music on Cleveland Street.
The board’s roughly $380,000 budget for downtown spending comes from a special tax assessed on property owners within the board’s boundaries.