CLEARWATER – A contingent of residents attended last week’s city council meeting to voice their concerns over a perceived lack of transparency following a series of individual meetings between Clearwater City Council members and Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige.
The meetings were held March 14 and, according to council members, outlined Miscavige’s plans for a revitalized downtown Cleveland Street that is focused on developing retail businesses and the creation of a downtown entertainment center.
The meetings, held in the ballroom of the church-owned Fort Harrison Hotel, were done on a one-on-one basis with council members and Miscavige, with consultants and Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne in attendance.
The fact that the meetings were held privately rather before the public has made some in Clearwater uneasy and those concerns were voiced during a regular council meeting on March 16.
Clearwater resident Miguel Hall was one of the first to address the council.
“My comment is concerning the meetings with the Church of Scientology,” Hall said. “I find it very troubling that you guys would have meetings with the Church of Scientology, most of you … in private meetings, instead of being in the Sunshine Law. We have rules about that.
“That sets a very bad precedent for people, or the expectations of people in the city of Clearwater, because a lot of people are feeling uneasy about how this has been done,” he continued.
Several residents voiced their general support for the council – but not about this particular topic.
During his time at the podium, Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church pastor the Rev. Bob Scott said he sympathized with the position of the council but also called for more transparency in any future proceedings.
“Mr. Mayor and council members, you all have been put in a really difficult situation over the last couple of weeks,” Scott said. “You had a difficult situation having to have conversations with the largest property owner and stakeholder in downtown and I understand the need to explore every avenue for what is in the best interest of Clearwater.
“I think it’s the lack of transparency that is the most troubling to citizens, at least for myself,” he continued.
Marita Lynch attended and spoke at what she said was her first city council meeting.
“Prior to this, I’ve always had great faith and trust in the way the city was run,” Lynch said. “The discussions about the lack of transparency, the lack of public input in such a big decision … I implore you to make yourselves more transparent.”
Fran Bradford told council members she had a lot of faith in them, but it was time to clear up the confusion surrounding the private meetings.
“I just want to go on record saying that I, too, am very concerned,” Bradford said. “But I think we can still clean this up and do it the right way, please. I have a lot of faith and trust in you.”
According to council members, during his presentation Miscavige also addressed his desire to purchase the 1.4-acre lot the city currently is in negotiations with Clearwater Marine Aquarium to purchase, which has long been of interest to the Church.
During Thursday’s meeting, however, city leaders delayed the approval of a contract in the not-to-exceed amount of $4.26 million with CMA until its April 20 council meeting, citing a failure to advertise the intent to purchase correctly.
CMA purchased the property in question in anticipation of building a new aquarium in downtown Clearwater several years ago. CMA, instead, decided to renovate its current facility on Island Estates and put the property on the market. The property, located at 301 Pierce St., is located atop the Clearwater bluff.
With the recent approval of the city’s downtown bluffs master plan, city leaders agreed last month to move forward with purchase of the property, which would give the city a contiguous tract of 2.1 acres of property along the north and south sides of Pierce Street between Osceola Avenue and the waterfront.
Councilman Bob Cundiff told the Clearwater Beacon last week that he felt the property was key to the Church’s plans for downtown and without it, moving forward may not happen.
Clearwater resident April Robinson urged the council to move forward with the purchase of the property.
“I guess I would say this would be very important for the city to do,” Robinson said. “Because while the Scientology people are here and we understand that and we respect their right to be here, I think the time to stop is now. I think them owning as much as they own is enough.”
Councilman Hoyt Hamilton said he is in favor of the city moving forward with the purchase.
“I’m going to publicly address you and everybody watching on why I took a meeting with Mr. Miscavige,” Hamilton said. “Your positions regarding this property next door and a lot of the other things regarding Scientology are very, very close to my opinions. This is why you put your trust in me because I went to listen to what he was saying, but also to let him know my intent is to buy that property regardless of anything else he wants to present to me.”
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos forcefully defended his and his colleagues’ meetings, saying as duly elected officials, it was their responsibility to meet with a community stakeholder.
“Understand that we represent the city of Clearwater, all of you, and if you think that one meeting compromises our responsibilities and our obligation to you, the city of Clearwater, you are gravely mistaken,” he said.
“We meet, as was indicated, with individuals all the time,” Cretekos continued. “We meet with developers. We meet with contractors. We meet with individuals who don’t like each other, who don’t like us sometimes. But that is our responsibility, to listen. And we gather information. And if we exclude one person because we don’t like him or we don’t like what they stand for, is that America?
“Now, I will also say that sometimes we make decisions, just like you, that you may not be happy with the next day, but that doesn’t mean that you were bribed or bought or did something deceitful.”
City council will vote on the purchase of the Pierce Street property during its April 20 regular council meeting.