ST. PETERSBURG — Amid mounting political pressure following the Tampa Bay Rays' request on Monday to scout for a new home — even one outside city boundaries — St. Petersburg officials are bracing for a legal showdown.
St. Petersburg City Council members, some of whom were expecting a public discussion Thursday about what to do next, were told instead by legal counsel to sit tight and be careful of what they say.
"What we do now is look at different avenues the Rays may take with respect to the contract," said City Attorney John Wolfe. "We are researching those."
In the meantime, Wolfe said, the council would best refrain from openly discussing the topic and possibly igniting a rivalry with Hillsborough County, which Rays' owner Stuart Sternberg named Monday as a potential stadium site for the club.
"There's not a lot to say," Wolfe told them. "Except to say for you not to get involved in this competition between St. Petersburg and Tampa."
Before Thursday's briefing, Wolfe said he didn't want council members to talk too much because it might weaken the city's position in case of a lawsuit with the Rays or Major League Baseball.
Hence, Thursday's meeting was short and heavily scripted. Mayor Bill Foster issued a two-page statement that reiterated the city's position that St. Petersburg is the only possible home for the club until its contract on Tropicana Field expires in 2027.
"The taxpaying residents of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Major League Baseball and the Rays," Foster said in the statement. "Above all else, their interests will come first."
Foster's statement discussed the Gateway area or other possible stadium sites as long they fall within city limits. The city is careful even on this point because it would require amending the contract, which forbids the Rays from even discussing sites other than the Trop. The city doesn't want to weaken that provision with discussion of the Gateway without adding contract language that makes it clear that only city sites can be considered.
On Monday, Sternberg specifically mentioned a desire to explore sites in Tampa and Hillsborough County.
Sternberg acknowledged that design, planning and site selection could take years. Even if that process began today, he said, construction couldn't begin until 2014 at the earliest.
He also said "there is no reason for us to be here'' if no plan is in place by 2020. One option would be for his ownership group to sell the team, he said.
Foster's statement Thursday surprised Wolfe, who had been set to talk in more detail about the use agreement.
"I didn't expect it so soon," Wolfe said. "I had to rearrange what I was going to say."
Wolfe touched briefly on the agreement, stressing that as far as he knew, the Rays hadn't violated it by expressing an interest in a new home. But he mostly dwelled on what Foster outlined in his statement.
Foster and all eight City Council members believe the club's agreement with the city is ironclad, binding the team to the Trop. They concede it may not be sufficient through 2027, but any talk of a replacement should take place only between the team and city officials, they have said.
All of them oppose the Rays moving outside the city.
But at least two council members, Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton, said they wanted more public discussion.
"With all due respect, that's how people get upset and start thinking that things are getting done in a secretive manner," Kornell said. "We should be as open as possible."
He said rather than just tell Rays' officials that they must remain in St. Petersburg, city officials should present a plan for a new stadium.
"We're letting the other side dictate how this is getting talked about," Kornell said. "A plan with a new stadium puts the ball back in their court."
Newton said he didn't ask any questions because he assumed there was going to be a workshop on the Rays next week. He referred to a request made earlier in the week by City Council member Jeff Danner for a July 8 meeting. But Danner dropped his request because the Thursday meeting was scheduled instead.
"I didn't know that we don't have a meeting next week," Newton said. "If there's no meeting, I'm wondering why now we weren't allowed to ask questions."
Danner said he will follow Wolfe's advice, for now.
"You want to have a simple meeting when there's 10 cameras present," he said. "The mayor and the legal staff are being very guarded, and I support that."
Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansi[email protected]