ST. PETERSBURG — During private meetings with City Council members this week, Mayor Bill Foster is revealing details about a secret plan to keep the Tampa Bay Rays from leaving town.
"He said there are individuals working on some plan," Jeff Danner said of his 20-minute meeting with Foster on Monday afternoon. "There are discussions going on with interested parties, and they're focused on keeping the Rays here. He didn't name any names."
Foster was emphatic that the plan wasn't his. "He pounded home the idea that it's not a city plan, that it's not initiated by him or city staff," Danner said.
The mayor's latest account of backroom efforts to keep the Rays remains under wraps. He didn't return multiple calls seeking more information.
In the past two weeks, Foster has provided conflicting answers as to whether there is a secret plan. His answers have spanned the spectrum: (1) There are no new developments. (2) I'd like to tell you, but I can't say publicly. (3) There is a plan in the works.
The city's use agreement with the Rays binds the club to Tropicana Field through the 2027 season. The Rays' principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, has said it's not economically feasible for the team to continue playing at the Trop. He asked the city for permission to explore stadium options in Hillsborough County, but the city refused.
Nearly two weeks ago, as pressure mounted from business and civic groups to break the stalemate, council member Leslie Curran proposed that the city talk about options, even if that means letting the club look outside Pinellas. The eight-member board has the power to amend the city's contract with the Rays. Therefore, the council should play a bigger role, she said, adding that the group had been circumvented by Foster.
Foster at the time said Curran knew everything there was to know. He stressed that there was no secret plan to keep the Rays that involved his point person on the issue — senior administrator of development, Rick Mussett. If the private sector had a plan, it didn't involve the city, Foster said.
"The people know everything that I know because it's been in the media," Foster said then.
But last week, during Thursday's council meeting in which Curran's proposal was discussed, Foster gave different answers.
At first, he stuck to his "there's nothing new to report" stance.
"I didn't provide any updates to City Council because there have been no updates," he told council members.
But minutes later he shifted slightly, suggesting that there were developments he couldn't reveal. Unlike the Rays, a private business, the city is subject to public record laws, he said.
"We can't play this poker hand, in the (Florida open meetings law) sunshine and with public records requests," he said. "I'm convinced of that. But when the time comes … and actually (the Rays) are ready to come to the table, all of that will be publicly discussed and in the sunshine."
But then he dropped his bombshell.
"As far as having a detailed plan on what we can do to keep the Rays," Foster said, "I have that detailed plan."
"Which plan is that?" Curran asked. "The marketing plan? Is that what you're talking about?"
"No," Foster replied. "Something that you and I have discussed in the past."
Yet six council members, including Curran, later said they had no clue what Foster was talking about. Foster suggested it would be better to brief council members privately in one-on-one meetings, but the majority of the council supported Curran's motion to hold a workshop to discuss the issue publicly. (Council Chairman Jim Kennedy and Bill Dudley voted no.)
When asked that night about what plan he was referring to, Foster told the Times that there "is no secret plan with outside groups. But there is a plan." He said some aspects weren't public yet, but he refused to give details.
That statement seems to contradict what Danner and Karl Nurse said Foster told them Monday in separate meetings.
Foster said "he does have some things in place that I didn't know about and there are some other things going on that could bear fruit before the year's out," Nurse said.
Asked if the "other things" involved private groups, Nurse replied, "Yes, and that's the kind of stuff that I'm hoping before the year is out we can begin having those conversations."
Nurse declined to provide any more details.
"It's in our community's interests to work this a little bit further along before it becomes public," he said, "a half-baked idea doesn't sell as well as one that's fully developed."
Kennedy said Tuesday he has not talked baseball with the mayor: "It is best done to let the mayor pursue his course."
Because of previously scheduled meetings, the Rays workshop can't be held until Oct. 20. Kennedy said he has other matters that he might suggest get addressed before the Rays, pushing it back further.
This doesn't sit well with Curran, who still hasn't spoken with Foster.
"I didn't think this week we'd see the mayor having all these individual meetings with council members," Curran said. "That's not what we voted on. Oct. 20 is too far off. The longer we wait to have the workshop, the more speculation we'll have to what's actually going on."