Scientology Crime Syndicate

23 Jul 2000

rkeller@netaxs.com (Rod Keller)

Ousting Roberto is 1 step in long journey

St. Petersburg Times
July 23, 2000

In the end, it was almost anti-climactic.

In the hot meeting room at Clearwater City Hall on Thursday night, the standing-room-only crowd was more emotional about the issues of Scientology and long-term rentals of condominiums than about City Manager Mike Roberto's possible departure.

Television news crews stood around the fringes of the room, thwarted in their effort to find drama worth recording.

Mike Roberto's chair on the dais was empty, and a rumor spread around the room that he had left town on a two-week vacation. In fact, he was closeted in his office near the meeting room, casually watching the commission meeting on television and blowing soap bubbles with his wife.

"Mayor, I'd like to make a motion," Commissioner J.B. Johnson intoned about three hours into the meeting, opening discussion of whether to accept Roberto's resignation.

Exactly five minutes later, it was all over.

A unanimous vote to accept the resignation, effective July 24 rather than Aug. 4 as Roberto had requested.

A unanimous vote to give him most of the severance package he wanted.

No debate. Little discussion. Commissioners moved on to other business.

But the calm on the dais belied the four days of intense pressure that city commissioners had been under.

Behind the scenes they had been lobbied by Roberto's fans to keep him on, even give him a raise. They had been urged by Roberto's detractors to send him packing without a penny. They had struggled with the question of what was appropriate behavior between men who needed to part ways but wanted to be professional and gentlemanly toward each other.

Mayor Brian Aungst had set off the chain of events by meeting privately with Roberto the previous Sunday night and encouraging him to resign. Aungst apparently had decided weeks ago that the controversial Roberto's continued presence in Clearwater was like a splinter left in the flesh -- causing increasing pain, starting to fester.

Aungst, as the city's top elected official, decided that he should make the first move toward healing the wound and that he should do it quietly and privately.

He got some criticism for that Thursday night from Commissioner Ed Hart, who in written remarks referred to the "back-room nature of this interaction" that involved the city in "four days of innuendo and rumors."

But Hart also admitted his own problems with Roberto.

"I've had a great deal of difficulty working with his management style and inability or unwillingness to keep me and the public informed regarding important decisions," Hart read from his laptop computer screen. "I've asked on numerous occasions for improvement in certain areas, which I admit did not happen."

The other commissioners didn't jump on Aungst for his role in bringing about Roberto's resignation. Maybe they were grateful someone else had taken the lead. Maybe they didn't want to show any unattractive divisiveness among themselves. Maybe they just wanted to accomplish what should have been done months ago and move on.

It is a hopeful sign that in the end, this commission and this city clipped their connection to Roberto so dispassionately. Maybe that means the challenges that lie ahead can be addressed without so much emotion.

Mike Roberto leaves behind a city that looks better than it did when he arrived. His programs brought beauty to places that had none.

But beneath that dressed-up exterior is a city roiling with frustration and dissatisfaction. Roberto was only one of the flash points.

Residents who feel shut out and abused by their city government now have city commissioners in their sights. Some are even urging them to resign before their terms end.

A new wave of hostility toward the Church of Scientology seems to be washing over the community.

Progressive voices in the city are engaged in bitter sparring with more conservative residents about Clearwater's future. Some residents say the City Commission should make a plan for a more vibrant downtown to replace the private plan voters rejected July 11. They are apparently unaware that the city doesn't have the money for anything that ambitious.

Neighborhoods that were promised a new and better future under Roberto's programs want the city to keep those projects alive. But who will manage them? Interim City Manager Bill Horne, who was Roberto's assistant, has no experience managing a city and has a huge challenge ahead just keeping the ship of government afloat in such stormy seas. Whatever else he is able to accomplish will be gravy.

City commissioners seem to recognize that they need to be leaders right now and that they must regain public trust. They just don't seem to know how to go about it.

For sure, only one hurdle has been crossed with the departure of Mike Roberto. There are plenty more hurdles ahead.



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