CLEARWATER -- Members of the Church of Scientology recently have been rising to the defense of embattled City Manager Mike Roberto in an outpouring of public support for a Clearwater official that would have been inconceivable in the past.
The unusual display, in the form of letters and e-mails to City Hall and the Times, is an indicator of how dramatically City Hall's relationship with the church and its members has changed -- from the icy co-existence that began with Scientology's arrival in Clearwater in 1975, to a new era of cooperation that began with Roberto's arrival in June 1997.
The city's new openness has been greeted by a professed desire for peace from Scientology, which is proceeding with a massive, $60-million to $80-million downtown expansion.
Also changed has been the posture of Clearwater's City Commission. It has quietly consented as Roberto opened lines of communication with the church's Los Angeles-based leader David Miscavige and included Scientology for the first time in talks about downtown redevelopment.
Church officials and members said the outpouring of letters was not an orchestrated campaign but a spontaneous occurrence by individual parishioners who acted without guidance from the church.
In an interview this week, Miscavige suggested Scientologists reacted the way they did because they are keenly aware of Roberto's efforts to improve relations with Scientology and "treat them as citizens of Clearwater."
He added: "This is the way it should be in this community. It's such a change. Two years ago you couldn't have imagined that."
The support became noticeable in the days following an Aug. 5 meeting at which city commissioners expressed growing impatience with what they said was excessive spending by Roberto. Some commissioners raised serious questions about his job performance and put him on notice to improve.
Over the next week, City Hall received 35 letters and e-mails about the city manager. Of the 29 pieces of mail in support of Roberto, at least 26 were from Scientologists.
At the Times, at least 33 of the 44 pro-Roberto letters and e-mails were from Scientologists. Many of the supporting letters were published.
Combining the two, nearly 80 percent of the favorable public reaction to Roberto's troubles came from members of the church.
Most of them made the same general points -- that Roberto's energetic approach to redevelopment was good for Clearwater, that his transgressions were minor compared with the good he accomplished, and that the Times' reporting on Roberto has been counterproductive.
None of the letter writers identified themselves as Scientologists. Roberto did not return calls seeking comment for this story Wednesday. He has said he did not seek the support, nor did he know most of it came from Scientologists.
He said in a written statement last week: "The City Commission has directed me to be responsive to all members of this community. It is my conviction to treat all citizens in the city of Clearwater with dignity and respect."
Miscavige said he has no desire to get involved in city politics and never would involve the church itself in such a campaign.
He said he and Roberto have met between six and 10 times over the past year and half, not including numerous meetings between lower-level staff from both organizations.
Mostly they discussed how the church's expansion should meld with Roberto's downtown redevelopment efforts. He praised Roberto for opening a dialogue with the church and said the two have a "mutual respect."
"But I worry," Miscavige said, "about that being perceived as some sort of blind support."
He added: "I don't want to appear to be going to bat for the guy."
Miscavige said, in fact, that he shares the view of most commissioners that some of Roberto's actions have been bad for the city, including a staff retreat that cost taxpayers $15,000.
He added, however, that Roberto has been good for Clearwater on balance.
The Scientology leader expressed amusement that his church, which had battled the city for so many years in court and on other fronts, now was suspected of having the city in its "back pocket." He said his relationship with Roberto has benefited the city more than the church.
As an example, he cited Roberto's request that the church take steps to reduce the number of its staffers who mass across Cleveland Street during meal times. Roberto believed the foot traffic was excessive and didn't fit in with his vision for downtown.
Miscavige, offended at first, said he later came to see what Roberto was talking about and even concluded it would be better for the church if the dining facilities were moved to the massive new building Scientology is constructing on Fort Harrison Avenue. The change in plans, he said, required the church to put a basement in the building at an extra cost of $3.6-million.
He also said the church is moving to recruit national retail stores and restaurants on the first floor of one of its Cleveland Street buildings, after a request by Roberto. Another plan is under way to improve streetscaping along Cleveland street, he said.
The city under Roberto has not given Scientology special treatment, Miscavige said. "It's normalization. But, here, it seems huge because normalization is so many levels above where we were. What we had was a very abnormal relationship."
The change in city-church relations comes despite a legal cloud that still hangs over Scientology. The church continues to fight criminal charges of abuse and practicing medicine without a license in the 1995 death of parishioner Lisa McPherson.
Nevertheless, in what is believed to be a first, the city last week listed Scientology as an asset to downtown in a document that will go to prospective developers.
Also, the city recently participated in a market survey of downtown workers that was commissioned by the church.
And, a week ago, city commissioners Ed Hart and Bob Clark and Mayor Brian Aungst visited the church's landmark Fort Harrison Hotel to view a concrete pouring for the $3.6-million basement.
It was a casual affair, but, Miscavige said, it was the first time since 1975 that any elected city official had been in the building.
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