ST. PETERSBURG — State Rep. Rick Kriseman has joined a chorus of critics concerned that a private group of 11 business and civic leaders tapped to figure out a long-term strategy for the Tampa Bay Rays is not inclusive or transparent enough to get the job done.
Mayor Rick Baker and Judy Mitchell, co-chair of A Baseball Community, called the criticism premature Friday and implored skeptics to give the group the benefit of the doubt.
"I believe that their intention is to be inclusive," Baker said. "Give them a chance. If you are looking to find fault, you can always find fault."
Baker chose Progress Energy chief executive Jeff Lyash to head the group in June after the Rays' $450-million downtown waterfront stadium proposal failed to gain wide support.
The group has two main goals: build community support for the team and identify new stadium locations and financing options.
Critics are concerned about the groups' business-centric membership and unchecked authority. Lyash and Mitchell have promised that the group will follow the state's Sunshine Law, though it is not required to do so and there is no way to ensure it will.
"It needs to be more than an intent, it needs to be the law," said Kriseman in a YouTube video he quietly posted Thursday criticizing the group. Otherwise, he added, "we won't get the buy in ultimately on whatever the decision or the recommendation is and baseball as a whole will suffer here in St. Pete."
New details also emerged Friday that raised questions about Lyash and Mitchell's commitment to transparency.
At least six board members met Wednesday morning in a private meeting. Mitchell said the meeting was an informal opportunity for the members to get to know each other.
"Nothing of substance was talked about," she said. "You've got to point it out in context. We were barely formed. From here on out, everything is official."
The group also challenged a St. Petersburg Times request for copies of the 300 nomination forms submitted to Lyash by potential board members. Applicants were not told the documents would be public, said Mitchell, who added that the group was running the request by a lawyer to ensure they could not be held liable for releasing the forms.
If the applications had been submitted to City Hall, they would be public under the Sunshine Law.
The group already had a mixed record of openness.
It took Lyash more than two months to name the 11 members, which include two women and nine men. There are five CEOs, a former neighborhood president and one elected official. At least four members also served on the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce baseball task force.
Lyash created a Web site and invited the community to nominate themselves to the board, but the selection process was so shrouded in secrecy even some board members were left guessing who the finalists were. Lyash also created at least three committees open to the public to broaden the group's membership.
The group will hold its first public meeting Sept. 15 at St. Petersburg College's EpiCenter facility in Largo. The group's attorney, Charles Harris, will begin by explaining the Sunshine Law to the board, Mitchell said.
"We are really just at the very beginning of this process, and we've only, in essence, dealt the first card out of the desk," she said. "The inclusiveness and getting other voices on the table are going to come when we do those committee groups. That's where the heavy lifting will get done."
But Kriseman demanded Baker or the City Council expand the group or create a second citizen-based group similar to the Albert Whitted Airport task force. In 2004, City Hall appointed a 19-member group to lead discussions on the airport's future.
Former council member Virginia Littrell, a member of Preserve our Wallets and Waterfront, also is calling for a public task force.
"The City Council owes this to the citizens, and if they should fail to do this they have failed to provide fair and equal representation to the citizens on the issue of baseball," she wrote in an e-mail.
But council members said they prefer to take a wait-and-see approach. "The people on the group are an impressive group of people," said council member Jim Kennedy. "I'd like to see what they start doing before I start criticizing them."
The private meeting concerned council member Herb Polson, but he said he is also willing to give the group a chance to prove itself.
"Someone is going to have to decide the level of openness that is going to be applied," he said. "This is an inauspicious beginning."
Cristina Silva can be reached are (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.