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

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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.

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