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Crist angry he had no say in proposed Tampa ballpark site before it went public

By Steve Contorno
JAMES BORCHUCK | Times
Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist said he's angry he was not briefed before Commissioner Ken Hagan went public with his preferred site for a Tampa Bay Rays ballpark in Tampa.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan surprised the local sports world by announcing that local leaders picked a Ybor City site to offer the Tampa Bay Rays for a ballpark.

But that’s not all who were surprised.

Commissioner Victor Crist was livid Wednesday that he learned about the plan through the media. Crist said it was a violation of protocol for Hagan to unveil a location as a county plan and present it to the Rays without first getting the approval of the entire commission.

Crist’s fear is that this has been branded publicly as Hillsborough County’s plan, when the county commission hasn’t even seen it, let alone vote on it.

"This has had no vetting of the county commission. This has had no vetting of public input," Crist said. "This whole thing has been done in a vacuum behind the scenes, out of the sunshine and that is not how the Board of County Commissioners operates."

Crist pointed out that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told reporters that he, too, was caught off guard by Hagan’s announcement. County Administrator Mike Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times that he wasn’t given a warning by Hagan either, but said, "That's his prerogative."

Hagan informed reporters Tuesday that the county had solidified site control of 14 acres in the area between the Channel District and Ybor City through a nonprofit that will be run by Tampa lawyer Ron Christaldi and businessman Charles Sykes.

Crist said he met with Christaldi the day before, along with Rays President Brian Auld. The Ybor site never came up. Instead, during the conversation, which included about 12 other people, Crist talked about the merits of the Tampa Greyhound Track for a ballpark.

Why didn’t Christaldi or Auld clue him in? Crist wondered.

"You can find this whole thing breaks down quickly just because it was handled inappropriately," said Crist, who opined that his colleagues were just as upset.

But if they are, they declined to lash out, as Crist did.

Commissioners Al Higginbotham, Les Miller and Sandy Murman said they weren’t expecting an announcement Tuesday but nevetheless had no problem with Hagan making public the preferred site.

In a vote last year, the board formally designated Hagan the commission’s point person to lead the site search with other community and business leaders, and to negotiate with the Rays and landowners.

"We gave him that authority and to my knowledge he did exactly what we asked him to do," Miller said.

Murman said, though, it is important to note that no deal has been struck — "We’d have to approve that," she said — and she expects a conversation on the board soon.

"It’s a process," Murman said, "and we’re in the conceptual stage."