Sell a brick. Make a bundle.
The simple fundraising gimmick has worked so many places. Why not Clearwater?
Last summer a volunteer group called Citizens for a Better Clearwater launched a brick drive to pretty-up a dingy, downtown alley running along a building owned by the Church of Scientology.
Pay $35, $45 or $55 and you could have your brick with your message laid in what eventually would become the Cleveland Street Gas Light Alley.
Orders came in by the hundreds:
"Mayor Brian Aungst Sr."
"One City, One Future, United We Stand."
Then one day a Scientology critic wanted a brick with this message: "Remember Lisa McPherson 1959-1995."
And united we stand went out the window.
A secret committee of the Citizens for a Better Clearwater rejected the McPherson brick along with two other bricks ordered by members of a Scientology watchdog group called the Lisa McPherson Trust.
Suddenly, whether you could buy a brick depended on who you were, what you had to say and why you were buying it.
"We . . . do not feel that we can accept donations for a brick from you and still maintain the message of community harmony that we seek," the downtown group wrote to the McPherson Trust members in a letter sent with their uncashed checks.
So the feud between the Church of Scientology and its critics, which requires court orders and off-duty cops to keep the peace, now has soured the once simple idea of sprucing up an alley with bricks, jasmine and old-fashioned lights.
And the decision to pick and choose among brick buyers for a public park raises serious questions, especially for the city, about whether First Amendment rights were violated.
"Straight censorship," is how Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, sees it.
"If the First Amendment stands for anything it's that messages a private citizens group finds divisive can't be censored," Simon said. "What the city is stupidly backing into is being liable for constitutional violations going on in its name."
The two Scientology critics whose bricks were rejected are crying foul, saying their civil rights were violated.
Citizens for a Better Clearwater defends its actions, lamenting that the controversy forced it to abandon brick sales and sacrifice dollars that would have been used for other downtown projects.
"It breaks my heart, but the game's up. We're done," said Pam Marks, co-chairperson of the volunteer group, which organized last year to rally support for the sweeping downtown redevelopment plan rejected by Clearwater voters in July.
"What we've done is above board and there's good reason for it," she said of the alley park, due to open May 15.
Both sides are calling in lawyers, raising the specter of a legal showdown - all over three bricks worth $135.
"It's viewpoint-based discrimination," said John Merrett, a Jacksonville lawyer who represents the Lisa McPherson Trust. "If the city has turned over stewardship of a public property to an entity that's going to discriminate against people based on their viewpoint, they need to rip the bricks up."
In City Hall, Clearwater leaders want the whole thing to go away.
But, it is city land, after all. Plus, city workers installed the alley park's irrigation system, and the city is picking up the water bill. Six lamps were donated by the city's gas utility, which is providing free gas.
Even so, this alley controversy runs just one way, says City Attorney Pam Akin. It dead-ends with the Citizens for a Better Clearwater.
"Because we're not really involved, even though it's a city alley, we don't think it has First Amendment concerns from our standpoint," Akin said.
Meanwhile, the Church of Scientology, whose volunteers helped create the park, applauds the screening work being done by the Citizens for a Better Clearwater.
"Good for them," said church spokesman Ben Shaw.
Scientology critic Jeff Jacobsen ordered two memorial bricks, one for McPherson and one for Leo J. Ryan, a California congressman killed in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, while investigating the Jim Jones cult.
McPherson was a 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 after a 17-day stay at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. Jacobsen, who never knew McPherson, helps organize an annual Scientology protest and vigil in her memory.
"Lisa was an important person in the community and I wanted people to remember her," Jacobsen said. "That's the strange thing about Clearwater: Simple things are never simple. The group offered bricks to pay for the park and I bought a brick and all this strangeness happens."
Another rejected brick was proposed by Stacy Brooks, a former Scientologist and president of the Lisa McPherson Trust. She ordered a brick in memory of Roxanne Friend, who died of cancer after leaving Scientology. Why her order was returned, Brooks cannot understand.
"Wow. What is happening here?" she asked.
"It was a way of honoring someone who was close to me who is now dead," Brooks said. "They've made a unilateral decision about my brick without ever discussing it with me. They're getting their information from someone other than me. I have a good idea where they got it."
Citizens for a Better Clearwater has proof the Lisa McPherson Trust members had "less than admirable" motives, Marks said.
The citizens group got hold of a posting Jacobsen made on the Internet in September outlining the alley project, Marks said. Jacobsen emphasized that engraved bricks would go next to a Church of Scientology building.
"Now here's where we come in," Jacobsen wrote. "You can buy a brick and put a message on it that will stay there forever! Right next to the Coachman Building. Think of it!"
A 10-member steering committee rejected Jacobsen's and Brooks' brick orders because of that posting, Marks said..
"We felt their motive was to create dissension," Marks said.
Just who is on the steering committee?
That's a secret.
Marks refused to provide a list of committee members. She said only that she is not on the committee and it does not include any Scientologists.
"There's been threats and it's been really ugly," Marks said. "It's not anywhere in our bylaws that we have to disclose that, so we're not."
The citizens group did reject a few other bricks deemed inappropriate. "Roundabout Roberto" and "Buccaneers suck" also got a thumbs down, Marks said.
Asked if a Scientology critic could have succeeded in placing any message on a brick, Marks said: "We were very concerned after we saw the letter (Internet posting) as to their reasons and motives."
It's likely that bricks ordered by Scientologists have been accepted, Marks said.
But had a Scientologist wanted a brick for McPherson, that order probably would have been rejected too, Marks said, "just due to the inflammatory nature of the whole thing."