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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Clearwater officials should not surrender to Church of Scientology

Circumventing public meetings requirements by meeting one at a time, Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and other City Council members trooped to Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel to privately meet with church leader David Miscavige. They should remember they represent the public — no one else.
Published Mar. 23, 2017

Clearwater City Council members meekly capitulated last week to Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, answering his summons to private meetings at Scientology's command center to discuss its continued takeover of downtown. That was demeaning and disrespectful to Clearwater residents, who still have not heard directly from Miscavige about his latest scheme. Scientology should come out of the shadows, and public officials should remember they represent the public and no one else.

One by one, Mayor George Cretekos and other City Council members trooped to Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel to privately meet with Miscavige and hear his pitch. They circumvented public meetings requirements by meeting one at a time, and only City Council member Doreen Caudell had the good sense to reconsider and decline the invitation. Some who did go, including Cretekos and City Council member Hoyt Hamilton, went out of their way to be nice after their audiences with Miscavige and his consultants. Either Miscavige has had an epiphany, or city officials have decided to overlook Scientology's four decades of deceit and disingenuous dealings and are preparing to surrender.

All Clearwater residents know is what city officials recounted after their meetings. The Tampa Bay Times' Tracey McManus reported Scientology is focused on recruiting businesses to Cleveland Street rather than controlling every downtown block they don't already own. Miscavige suggested Scientology might pay for all of the facade redesign along Cleveland Street. And there apparently were some lovely renderings and video simulations.

Yet the public remains in the dark, and its elected officials should not be fooled by a slick sales pitch and Miscavige's new eagerness to collaborate. Remember Scientology bought more than $26 million in downtown properties earlier this year after Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor says he was assured by Miscavige in October that the church's plan did not include buying more property. Remember Scientology already has accumulated more than $260 million in real estate and is downtown's largest property owner. Remember Scientology already controls at least half of some 40 storefronts along a key stretch of Cleveland Street either directly or through its parishioners and Scientology-owned businesses that rent space. And remember what Miscavige really wants.

What Scientology really wants is a 1.4-acre downtown lot adjacent to Clearwater City Hall and one of its buildings. That lot had been bought by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a project that fizzled, and the aquarium has agreed to sell it to the city. Unfortunately, a paperwork glitch delayed the City Council's vote on the purchase until next month — handing Miscavige more time to apply more pressure. It's hardly surprising he has suggested to city officials that Scientology's interest in renovating Cleveland Street and building a new entertainment complex hinges on the church acquiring the aquarium lot.

Instead of standing up to Scientology, city officials are scrambling to defend their willingness to cooperate with the largest contributor to downtown Clearwater's demise. City Manager Bill Horne initially suggested he was willing to let Scientology lead on downtown redevelopment, then backtracked and acknowledged the city and the Community Redevelopment Agency should lead. Cretekos absurdly claimed he sees no difference between Scientology and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who is redeveloping 40 acres in downtown Tampa. There is no comparison in reputation, track record or transparency. Vinik unveiled his plans at a big public event in 2014. With Scientology, it's nothing but secret meetings and veiled threats.

City officials still have time to find their backbones. They should vote to buy the aquarium lot next month, then combine that lot with the City Hall site for redevelopment. They should carry out their $55 million plan to redo the downtown waterfront. And they should stop meeting secretly with Miscavige and treating Scientology like a newfound savior.

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