CLEARWATER — The four Scientologist members of the city’s Downtown Development Board didn’t mince words April 16 in sharing their views about new Council member Mark Bunker and his bid to join them on the body.
Paris Marfopoulos, chairman of the elected seven-member board whose purpose is to promote and advance downtown revitalization, went as far as to call Bunker a “professional bigot” for his anti-Scientology platform and what he said was years of harassment.
City Attorney Pam Akin also pointed out April 13 during the council’s work session that Bunker is not allowed within 10 feet of members of the church because of a long-term injunction, which could cause logistical issues.
Nevertheless, the City Council said its newest member deserves a chance to prove he can cooperate, and unanimously voted April 16 to appoint him to the board as an ex-officio, or non-voting, member.
However, he’ll also have a chaperone of sorts, as Mayor Frank Hibbard said he would be sitting right beside him, taking over the role that was previously held by Council member David Allbritton. Councilors added that they wouldn’t hesitate to remove him if he causes problems.
“I’m always happy to talk to any Scientologist anytime anywhere,” Bunker said. “L. Ron Hubbard himself said communication is the universal solvent. And I don’t believe I’m this crazed, wild person that they depict me as.”
Bunker said he would like to start a communication with the church and would not be afraid to seek out answers about its plans for downtown.
In October, the Tampa Bay Times reported that people and firms linked to the church had spent more than $100 million to purchase nearly 100 properties downtown.
“You have a majority now of Scientologists now on the board,” he said. “If Scientology is the problem, are Scientologists the answer? And I think the answer should be yes. They should be trying to work to make a better situation for everyone downtown so they feel comfortable coming downtown.”
Joining Marfopoulos, owner of the One Stoppe Shoppe on Cleveland Street, to implore the council to deny Bunker’s request were fellow Scientologists and current and former members of the board Keanan Kintzel, owner of Buzzazz Business Solutions; real estate developers Shahab Emrani and Raymond Cassano; and Stu Sjouwerman, founder and CEO of KnowBe4, Inc.
“This man should not be on the same committee with us,” Cassano said. “There’s four Scientologists on the board. This guy is vehemently and strongly anti-Scientology. He makes no bones about it. He says that, so if you want a DDB meeting where we’re arguing with him all the time, it’s just not going to be good for the city or the public relations of the city.”
Marfopoulos said Bunker had disrupted meetings in the past and that his comments calling Scientologists “dangerous, intolerant lunatics” was just some evidence of why the council shouldn’t allow him on the board.
“OK, do you really think that we’re going to work well together and that he’s coming here in good faith? he said. “What is his true intention? It was not unexpected that he would request this position, considering Mr. Bunker’s only interest in downtown is to further his anti-Scientology agenda and to enable his continuing harassment of Scientologists.”
Council member Hoyt Hamilton said this was a “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” scenario for the council, but he wanted to give Bunker and the members of DDB the chance to show that they can work together.
However, he said he would quickly remove him if he became a distraction.
“You won an election with 27% of the vote,” Hamilton told Bunker. “That means 73% of the people didn’t vote for you. So you do not have a mandate to move forward with personal agendas by any stretch of the imagination.”
Marfopoulos doubted that such cooperation would be possible.
“Some have suggested we now need to be reasonable and (give him) a chance that he can participate on the board in good faith,” he said. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that he’s capable of this or has any intention of doing so. It’s inconceivable to me that knowing these facts, the City Council would approve such an appointment and place him in proximity to myself. The work of the DDB simply could not proceed in the very disruptive and antagonistic presence of this individual.”
While campaigning, new Council member Kathleen Beckman said Scientology’s impact on downtown was a big concern for residents, so she thought Bunker might be the right man for the job, adding he might allay suspicions if he reports that the board is functioning properly.
“I do think we need to look at the fact that he was elected, it was a large part of his platform and I think people want to see what he can do to improve downtown and to improve our relationship with the primary landowner in downtown,” she said.
Hibbard said he had reservations, but also thinks Bunker deserves a chance to prove he can help the city build a better relationship with the church.
“Scientology is here in this community,” Hibbard said. “I think we need to have a better relationship than we’ve had in the past. It does not behoove us as a city to not have cooperation and to not have an open dialogue.”
That being said, he added he would be sitting right next to him on the dais.
Bunker said he was grateful for the opportunity.
“I’m not leading the people of Clearwater to the Fort Harrison (Hotel) with pitchforks and torches,” he said, referring to the church’s spiritual headquarters. “I’m doing what the people of Clearwater are interested in doing: Finding out what the heck is going on and try to do something about it. That’s why I was elected.”