Feb 17, 2024

In one Clearwater council race, a familiar topic emerges - Scientology

Tampa Bay Times

Tracey McManus Times staff

February 16, 2024

When City Council member Mark Bunker was elected in 2020, he said it was the beginning of a shift in the norms of Clearwater government.

He was the first candidate in decades to make the Church of Scientology’s impact on downtown central to his campaign. And he routinely brings up allegations of human trafficking and financial fraud against Scientology during council meetings — topics previously avoided on the dais.

Now in his bid for a second term in Seat 2, Bunker faces two opponents in the March 19 election — Lealman Fire District Capt. Ryan Cotton and marketing executive Mike Mastruserio — each with their own ideas for how the city should approach Scientology. All three candidates say their priorities go beyond downtown, but Bunker’s focus on Scientology in his first term has made the topic a point of debate.

“There are a lot of people who think I talk too much about Scientology,” Bunker said at a Morningside-Meadows neighborhood meeting in January. “But frankly I think we should all be talking about Scientology. They have held our downtown hostage.”

Since 2017, limited liability companies controlled by Scientology parishioners have gradually purchased at least 200 properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of property records. But most of the storefronts, buildings and lots remain vacant.

In a statement to the Times, Scientology spokesperson Ben Shaw stated: “I do not know anything about 200 property purchases since 2017.”

He then compared downtown purchases to Disney’s acquisition of land in Orlando for Disney World.

“Of course, the Church is not proposing a Disney World,” Shaw said. “But we are proposing an entire downtown redevelopment.”

City Manager Jennifer Poirrier is in discussions with Scientology officials about a potential agreement for church-controlled properties to be activated, but a deal has not yet been presented publicly.

Mastruserio said he considers revitalizing downtown the city’s most pressing issue. In a campaign flyer, he stated: “Scientology continues to hurt our city’s reputation, handicap our overall development, especially downtown.”

He said Bunker has not done enough to address Scientology’s impact. Mastruserio wants to put mobile retail stores in trucks or buses in front of empty storefronts controlled by parishioners as a workaround.

“For 50 years we talked about doing different things and have done nothing,” Mastruserio said at a Feb. 7 candidate forum. “I want to be the person who leads the fight to take back our streets in downtown.”

Bunker, however, said he’s taken action by reaching out to the FBI about the property purchases, which he calls an orchestrated effort by Scientology leader David Miscavige to “sabotage” downtown.

Miscavige “has created a problem only he can solve,” Bunker said at the forum. He said he has a unique understanding of the organization’s policies as he’s spent 25 years supporting people who say they have been harmed by Scientology.

Rebecca Kaufman, an attorney representing Scientology, said in a statement to the Times that “nothing came of (Bunker’s) unfounded claims.” An FBI spokesperson declined to answer whether the agency investigated Bunker’s complaint.

“Any statement that the Church is ‘hampering’ or ‘sabotaging’ downtown is false,” said Shaw, the church spokesperson.

“The Church operates within the law in all its activities,” he added.

Cotton has declined to say whether he believes Scientology is involved in the acquisition of vast tracts of real estate. Unlike his opponents, he has avoided bringing up Scientology in his campaign literature.

He said he wants to see downtown Clearwater “become bigger than St. Pete” and that “good Christian leadership” has taught him to work through issues with others.

“I think that you just need to treat them like any other organization,” Cotton said of Scientology at the Feb. 7 forum. “Work with them when you can but work around them if you can’t, because we need to get this downtown revitalized.”

But the candidates agree the race is about more than Scientology. Over his four-year term, Bunker said he’s been part of an effort to shift power from the political and business establishment and towards residents and neighborhoods. That, he said, most recently has included his advocacy for a state plan to eliminate one travel lane in each direction of the mostly residential portion of Drew Street and add a center turn lane to address safety problems.

Like the chamber of commerce, Mastruserio and Cotton oppose the project, citing concerns about traffic flow.

Bunker, 67, has been endorsed by the unions representing police and fire employees, which he said shows he is advocating for issues beyond Scientology. The Pinellas County Democratic Party also backed Bunker. He considers affordable housing the city’s most pressing issue.

As vice president of his daughter’s marketing firm, Proforma N & M Communication, Mastruserio, 70, said that business background gives him the ability to make change in the city. He has the backing of the business community through the endorsement of the chamber of commerce’s political action committee.

Since moving to Clearwater from Cincinnati in 2014, Mastruserio said he’s volunteered with various organizations and events, which has given him an understanding of the community’s needs.

His campaign has focused on supporting small businesses and economic development throughout the city.

“We have to be doers, not talkers; we have to get out and get the work done,” Mastruserio said.

As a working father with two young children, Cotton, who will turn 36 on Monday, said he is trying to usher a younger generation with new ideas to a City Council that has largely been filled with retirees over the decades. He’s centered his campaign on fiscal responsibility and has been endorsed by the Pinellas GOP.

Cotton said upgrading infrastructure is the most pressing issue, and the city must prioritize being more resilient.

“We need to invest our tax dollars more wisely. We need to make sure that it’s going to the things that aren’t so pretty, that we don’t see every day,” Cotton said at a recent forum.

He is also the son-in-law of sitting City Council member David Allbritton. If elected, Cotton would serve with his father-in-law for two years until Allbritton leaves office due to term limits.

At the Feb. 7 forum, Mastruserio raised concern that one family could control 40% of the council. There is no law preventing in-laws from serving together in office. But Florida’s open meetings law prohibits elected officials from discussing city business in private.

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, told the Times that in-laws would have to take extra precautions.

“Citizens will be watching carefully for even a whiff of private conversations, and sometimes perception can be just as damning as the facts,” Petersen said.

Cotton said following the Sunshine Law at home with Allbritton would not be a challenge. Cotton said he takes ethical responsibility seriously and would value public trust as an elected official.

“It comes down to my character and integrity,” Cotton said, and “separating work from home.”


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