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Bob Minton: Will he rouse the gorilla?

Column by Rick Barry/of The Tampa Tribune
December 10, 1999

CLEARWATER - There's been a truce in this city, albeit an uneasy one, between residents and the 4,000-pound gorilla that plopped itself down in their midst 25 years ago, and started rearranging the Tonka toys to suit its growing needs. Fighter airplanes circled for a while, and little squads of soldiers tried to tie it up, slow it down and examine its leavings to divine its intentions, and maybe some vulnerabilities.

But over time it grew, and grew some more. And as it grew, it became stronger. And although its needs grew ever larger, its strength kept pace, and it continues growing unchecked.

And, except for a few gnats now and again, and maybe the occasional dart, the beast largely has been left alone and become more docile, or seemingly so. Residents today go about their daily lives giving hardly a thought - OK, maybe there's the faintest anxiety pang - to its hulking presence.

But now, a loud if unimposing parrot is building a nest in the great beast's backyard. And the carping bird is bringing a half-dozen similarly inclined parrots with him, and one weapon that could at least annoy the beast.

Before we descend too deeply into parable hell, we should explain to those who've arrived since Lisa Marie left, we're talking here about the Church of Scientology, owner now of 37 properties in and around downtown Clearwater, valued at $40.1 million by Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith.

Of that, Smith figures $23.7 million worth are exempt from taxes since they are being used solely for religious purposes; another $16 million worth remain on the tax rolls.

By paying just under $400,000 a year in taxes, Scientology is one of the city's top five taxpayers.

Ah, but the newest taxpayer will soon be one Robert Minton of New Hampshire, Boston and London. He's buying a residence here as well as a building hard by Scientology headquarters for his Lisa McPherson Trust Inc.

Closing is set for Jan. 1. On that day, things are going to get a whole lot more interesting around here.

Ever the peacemaker, City Manager Mike Roberto says he'll gladly meet with Minton, and work to make him a part of this One City's One Future.

Minton is going to make his six- member McPherson leadership group, four of them former top Scientology officials, available to counsel members of the church ready to leave and members' families eager to initiate ``inter ventions,'' to pull them out.

And the foundation is going to try to get information to Scientology initiates who come to Clearwater and are cloistered, Minton says, to keep them from hearing the truth about their church - especially from critics.

He'll also attempt to publicize Scientology's practices - guarded ferociously as ``trade secrets'' - so those who would join the church know what they're getting into, emotionally and fi nancially - in advance.

And he's going to bankroll it all himself, at least at first. If McPherson's family wins its lawsuit against the church, and collects, it will share it with the foundation, he said. He's al ready spent $2.5 million fighting Scientology, and he'll spend more to check an organization he believes ruins the lives of adherents - as well as critics, their friends and families.

Minton swears he is not out to destroy Scientology. He concedes he couldn't do it if he tried: ``But if they want to be treated like a church, they should start acting like one.''

Scientologists shouted to him when he arrived earlier this month: ``Hey, what are you doing in OUR town?''

Well, if this is Scientology's city, he said: ``We're going to liberate this town.''