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Mayor hopes to mend rift with Scientology

By THOMAS C. TOBIN and ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 1999


CLEARWATER -- Two of the top candidates for mayor differed sharply on what traditionally has been a major issue in Clearwater, but it never came up during the recent campaign.

Brian Aungst and Rita Garvey never discussed the Church of Scientology, which is expanding its downtown presence as never before and trying to shed its controversial image.

Garvey, a longtime Scientology critic, made it a habit through the years never to speak with the church, which moved its "spiritual headquarters" to Clearwater in 1975.

Aungst, who defeated Garvey, said he knows next to nothing about Scientology or its history in Clearwater but wants to learn more, and wants the city to speak regularly with the church. A Countryside resident, he said he has no firsthand information on the church's plans for downtown.

"She had her style, I have mine," Aungst said in an interview last week. "I don't want to be confrontational with anyone in the city. . . . I'm trying to talk with everyone on an equal basis. In today's world, you need to do that."

Garvey did not reply to an interview request for this report.

Although the mayor of Clearwater has no more power than any other city commissioner and does not manage the city, Scientology's critics throughout the world viewed Garvey's long tenure as evidence the church was never fully accepted in the place it calls its "mecca."

Aungst's arrival marks the first time in at least a dozen years that the mayor's office has been open to church officials. It's also another sign of warming relations between a city and a church often at odds.

The change began in June 1997 with the arrival of City Manager Mike Roberto, who last year became the first Clearwater official to meet with Scientology's leader, David Miscavige, who is based in Los Angeles.

Miscavige said in an interview Friday in Clearwater that he welcomed the new mayor's statements and is sure he would be in contact with him by Monday. He said he would invite Aungst for a tour of the church's Clearwater complex and would answer any questions he has about Scientology's practices and its downtown plans.

The tour would be a first for an elected official in Clearwater, Miscavige said.

The new mayor and his predecessor come at Scientology from distinctly different backgrounds.

Garvey became a city commissioner in the early 1980s, when 11 high-ranking Scientologists were arrested and convicted for conspiring to steal documents from federal offices in Washington. In addition, the FBI seized documents that detailed Scientology's elaborate plans to mute opposition in Clearwater by smearing its local enemies and infiltrating the city's major institutions with undercover operations.

Church officials now say those were the actions of rogue Scientologists who were purged from the church, and they lament the lasting negative impact of that period on the church's image.

Like other Scientology critics, Garvey has said she believes today's Scientologists are capable of the same behavior, a charge the church forcefully denies.

At a commission meeting earlier this decade, Garvey voted against giving taxpayer money to a local concert because longtime Scientologist Chick Corea was one of the performers. Another time, during a gathering at Garvey's home, a Scientologist asked Garvey why she opposed the church. Garvey asked her to leave.

Aungst, in contrast, said he has no hostility toward Scientology. He was living in his hometown of Wilmington, Del., when Scientology arrived in Clearwater. He moved to the city 10 years ago.

Miscavige said he would have tried to talk to Garvey had she won re-election, as part of his recent effort to improve Scientology's relations in Clearwater. But he added he was not sorry that her replacement is a friendlier face.

He estimated there are 10,000 Scientologists in Clearwater and surrounding communities.

"I think it's very important to them that they have a mayor that's willing to talk to the people," Miscavige said. "When you just push aside an entire segment of the population, as an individual, it doesn't make you feel good."

Aungst and Miscavige said they were surprised Scientology wasn't an issue in the campaign.

While running for mayor, Aungst disclosed that his campaign staff screened contributions to ensure none were from Scientologists. He noted that Garvey's opponent in 1996 lost after it was revealed he had heavy support from Scientologists.

Miscavige called that unfortunate and said he hoped such a measure would be unnecessary in the future as Scientologists became more accepted in Clearwater.

The new mayor said communicating with Scientology would prevent problems, such as when 3,000 Scientologists mounted an angry march in 1997 to protest what they argued was unfair treatment by Clearwater police.

Aungst also said he would be willing to do business with Scientology -- buying or swapping land downtown -- if it makes sense for the city. The church has approached the city about acquiring public property to accommodate parking as part of its $70-million downtown expansion.

Said Miscavige: "I think it's terrific."

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