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Rift between St. Petersburg mayor, council widens at meeting on Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — It didn't take long before emotions ran hot during Thursday's meeting between Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council, exposing a rift that keeps widening on the Tampa Bay Rays.

Two months ago, at the urging of Leslie Curran, the council called for the meeting — to discuss the Rays' desire to leave Tropicana Field.

Owner Stuart Sternberg says the team cannot afford to play at the Trop through 2027, as required by contract. He wants to explore new stadium sites, including in Tampa, and has suggested that if he cannot, Major League Baseball will "vaporize'' the team.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has offered to talk about a new stadium — but only if it stays within city limits or adjacent land.

Curran had hoped that Thursday's meeting would give council members a chance to press Foster about the city's options and plans for keeping the Rays.

But it was not to be.

Foster has said that any broad discussion of strategy could weaken the city's legal and negotiating position.

"There may be a potential to get into what-if scenarios," Foster said in brief opening remarks. "I'd prefer not to get into that."

"I want to say something," Curran said.

"Wait a second," said council chairman James Kennedy, a close ally of Foster. "Wait a second."

"Before you cut me off …" Curran said.

"I'm going to try to run this meeting in a civil manner," said Kennedy, interrupting Curran again.

The meeting's agenda had listed three discussion items: franchise history, the Trop contract and city marketing efforts. Grilling Foster was not on the list.

"I'm reluctant at this point to open it up for council questions to the mayor,'' Kennedy said, "because it might deteriorate and we won't meet our objectives."

And so for 90 minutes, city officials talked about history and contracts, with few questions from the council.

City attorney John Wolfe said that if the Rays or Major League Baseball try to break the Trop contract, the city would sue every team in baseball and any other city that tries to lure them away.

"It would be big,'' Wolfe said.

During most of the meeting, Foster retired to his office and Kennedy continued to hew strictly to the agenda.

In the last 15 minutes, Foster returned and council members briefly broadened the discussion and several indicated they were eager for more.

Limiting discussion "is just lawyers being careful'' but not helpful, said council member Karl Nurse, citing Kennedy, a lawyer, cutting off Curran as an example.

"(The city) has to get off its high horse," Nurse said. "We have one tenant. It's in our interest to work things out. It doesn't do the city any good to keep saying that the mayor's door is open and (the Rays) are welcome to talk to us. If they don't, we need to reach out to them. It could be that we don't get love from the Rays at first, but we need to do this."

Foster's absence was noted by three council members: Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton and Jeff Danner.

"It is frustrating that there's an empty chair," Danner said. "We want to have a discussion with the mayor, and he's not here."

Foster, surrounded by reporters minutes after the meeting, said he spoke with Sternberg before a Texas Rangers playoff game and they agreed to meet later, but had not yet set a time.

He dismissed comments by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer this week that the Rays would do better in Central Florida.

"That's Buddy being Buddy," Foster said. "I'll put our waterfront against his any day."

The limited scope of Thursday's meeting should not have disappointed council members, Foster said. The formal motion that set up the meeting called for it to center on the Trop contract.

Their frustration was "disingenuous," Foster said. "They made the motion."

Besides, the Rays are "not an issue that keeps me up at night," Foster said. He's more concerned with declining property values, meeting a budget and public safety issues like EMS and protecting police officers, he said.

Curran said she will await details of when the next meeting on the Rays will be. At the end of Thursday's meeting, Kennedy said another meeting will be scheduled to address how the city will coordinate marketing with the Rays.

"I would hope that before legal action occurs, we could have an adult conversation about the possibilities," which might include a discussion of letting the Rays talk to Tampa, Curran said. "As long as it doesn't interfere with the city's legal position."

The council has the power to amend the use agreement with the Rays. Curran could make the motion to at least discuss the possibility of letting the club look at Tampa with an amendment to the agreement.

"I'd have to think about that," Curran said.

Whether or not she'd get her colleagues to support her on that remains to be seen. But as was made clear Thursday, a majority of council — Curran, Danner, Kornell, Newton and Nurse — were not satisfied with the limited discussion on the topic so far.

"The bigger discussion we didn't have here needs to happen," Danner said.

Rift between St. Petersburg mayor, council widens at meeting on Tampa Bay Rays 10/20/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 21, 2011 12:21am]
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