CLEARWATER — Last week, attorney Elise Winters argued that having two City Council members serve as non-voting officials on the Downtown Development Board was a waste of time since “one person can handle” the job of liaison between the two bodies.
But nobody had tried to change the arrangement in 34 years. So on Thursday, council member Hoyt Hamilton said “you’d have to be deaf, dumb, blind and dead” to not see through the timing of the downtown development board’s request to cut one of the ex-officio seats.
The council had appointed Mayor Frank Hibbard and council member Mark Bunker to serve as ex-officios in April 2020.
It caused immediate backlash from the board since Bunker, who was elected to the council in March 2020 on a campaign to address allegations of fraud and abuse in the Church of Scientology, would serve beside five of the seven Downtown Development Board members who are also Scientology parishioners.
On Thursday, the council unanimously agreed to ignore the development board’s request to cut one of the ex-officio seats. As they made their annual appointments to various local and regional boards, the council assigned Bunker and Hibbard to the Downtown Development Board for another year.
“Because there are so many Scientologists on that board, people tend to think Scientology controls the city, and that’s not true and I think me being in the room just kind of suggests, okay, they don’t have a say over who the city council appoints to the board,” Bunker said.
At the first Downtown Development Board meeting following Bunker’s April 2020 appointment, chair Paris Morfopoulos, also a Scientology parishioner, proposed an anti–discrimination policy that would have allowed him to eject from meetings anybody who makes discriminatory statements.
Winters, the board’s attorney, advised against adopting rules on the spot and said federal law already prohibits the city from discriminating against protected groups. At the direction of the board, she brought back a rule change in July that prevents speakers from discussing issues “outside the purview” of its authority — which isn’t much beyond spending a modest budget to promote downtown.
The rule change passed unanimously.
Bunker called it a clear attempt to block him from discussing Scientology’s impact on downtown. And when the Downtown Development Board first discussed its request for the Council to remove one ex-officio seat on April 7, Bunker said: “I think it’s important to have this on the record that really this is about Scientology.”
On Thursday, Council member David Allbritton said he agreed there wasn’t much of a need for two members to sit on the downtown board. But he said if the council were to grant their request to cut a seat, he’d like to see Bunker assigned to it.
That came with a caveat — Allbritton reminded Bunker that ex-officios are tasked with keeping the council updated on the board’s activities, not to voice personal opinions.
Hibbard said he recommended the council ignore the board’s request because like Bunker, he wanted to remain an ex-officio member and didn’t want “to pit us against each other for that appointment.”
The downtown development board exists to provide grants to businesses and fund marketing efforts, like the $30,000 it awarded April 7 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 increment on property owners within the board’s boundaries.