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Rays stadium group learns ABCs of sunshine law

ST. PETERSBURG — A coalition of civic and community leaders searching for a possible location for a new Tampa Bay Rays baseball stadium toiled in its first meeting Monday over how to conduct its work and comply with Florida's stringent public records laws.

The 11-member coalition, composed largely of members from the private sector, appeared uneasy about opening its discussions, e-mails and meetings to anyone who asked. Members learned that even a meeting between two of them required a formal, public advertisement.

"Are you serious?" Sembler Co. chief executive Craig Sher asked the group's attorney, Charlie Harris, after hearing the requirements.

Meanwhile, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg pushed the group to move swiftly. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Sternberg said he hoped the group could identify the location for a possible stadium in "well under a year." The coalition had suggested its work could take up to 18 months.

"The sooner the better," Sternberg said at Tropicana Field, where he was in town to watch the first of a crucial three-game series with the Boston Red Sox.

The ambitious time frame and the constraints of the coalition are just two of the challenges the group will face as it moves forward.

Coalition members quickly sought to address another concern — that the group is not representative of the broad interests of the Tampa Bay area. To address this, coalition chairman and Progress Energy Florida CEO Jeff Lyash said the group will take public input at several of its meetings and plans to hold public forums.

Though a potential new stadium will be the coalition's most divisive topic, members also are being asked to improve the team's support among businesses and the community as a whole.

"Credibility is something that's staring us all in the face," said coalition member and Pinellas County Urban League president Gregory Johnson.

All along, Lyash said he had intended that the coalition would operate under Florida's public records laws. But coalition members were told Monday they now have no choice.

Because the group was seated at the behest of a public official, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, and because the group ultimately will report to public officials, its work must be open to public review, the group's attorney said.

That means e-mails, documents and even the list of people who applied for the coalition will be available for public review.

Coalition member Chuck Sykes questioned how, for instance, he can discuss finding possible corporate support for the Rays without those discussions becoming public. Sher and others also worried that stadium talks about specific sites would become public too soon in the process.

"This is difficult," Lyash said, "but manageable."

While the group cannot dictate where a new stadium will be built — or if one will be built at all or who would pay for it — the coalition's opinions are expected to carry weight.

Sternberg, who earlier this year abandoned the team's plan for a stadium on St. Petersburg's waterfront, said he would defer to the group on the location of a new ballpark.

"I want them to consider sites that would be in the best interests of this region and would help us be able to thrive for a very long time. I don't think anything is off the table," Sternberg said. "We could play on the middle of the bay on an island if they think it's the best idea."

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.

Rays stadium group learns ABCs of sunshine law 09/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 11:53am]
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