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St. Petersburg mayor stays neutral on Rays' plan

ST. PETERSBURG — As the City Council meets today for the first of three votes needed to schedule a November stadium referendum, Mayor Rick Baker will remain conspicuously undecided about the $1-billion-plus ballpark and redevelopment plan.

Yes, Baker will recommend that the council move the referendum question to a second vote.

But that's more about process than support, Baker says. And, if no deal is reached by Aug. 7, the last of the council votes, the mayor says he will be the first to say so.

This delicate positioning has inspired anger on both sides of the stadium debate, but it nonetheless typifies Baker's MO in seven years as mayor: His successes have relied largely on crafting deals favorable to the city.

The moment Baker takes a side, associates say, he loses the leverage that helped him swing deals favorable to the city.

"This is a project that for the Rays doesn't succeed without Mayor Baker supporting it," said Charles M. Harris, a lawyer with Trenam Kemker and chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce's board of governors. "I think all of the principal players recognize that.

"I also think the negotiating process is still fluid, so I understand that the mayor is attempting to negotiate the very best deal that is possible. And until he has that very best deal, I don't fault him for not weighing in, for or against."

Baker certainly did not expect a stadium debate to dominate the second half of his final term. In 2005, he wrote that Tropicana Field "provides a great home for Major League Baseball, today and into the future."

Opponents of the Rays' current plan have used Baker's own words to make their points.

Yet in this latest go-around, Baker steadfastly has attempted to stay neutral.

Maybe it's a political calculation. Maybe his personal feelings are torn. Maybe it's because no easy solution exists.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday, Baker said his stance is simply a reflection of the questions that remain about stadium financing, parking and the redevelopment of Tropicana Field.

When those questions are answered, Baker said, he will weigh in.

"At the end of the day, if this goes on the ballot in November, it would be my duty as mayor to let people know what I think," said Baker, who does not cast votes with the City Council. "But I'm not going to try to put a date on it."

As it stands now, Baker is seeking at least two concessions from the Tampa Bay Rays. First, he has maintained that the Rays add 3,500 parking spaces downtown to support a new stadium, not the 800 the Rays have contemplated.

And second, Baker has used the stadium debate to once again raise the issue of adding St. Petersburg to the team's name to reflect the Rays' hometown.

"If you look at his history, he likes to have all of the facts before advocating a position for the citizens," said Deveron Gibbons, a close friend who worked on both of Baker's mayoral campaigns. "We ought to give him an opportunity to digest everything before we start beating up on him."

City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett said the mayor is torn on the Rays' question.

"He's just as conflicted" as other council members, Bennett said. "We love the Rays. We all want them to succeed. I don't think anyone wants to take credit for seeing a Major League Baseball team leave."

Council members are expected to vote on the Rays' proposal sometime during the afternoon portion of their regular meeting.

District 6 council member Karl Nurse will vote first, followed by the council members in District 7 (Wengay Newton) and District 8 (Jeff Danner). The voting will continue with District 1 representative Herb Polson through District 5 council member Bennett.

The measure needs five votes to pass. If the vote ends in a 4-4 tie, the proposal dies.

"Baseball's important to St. Petersburg," said Baker, who was re-elected in November 2005 with more than 70 percent of the vote and has received credit for bringing prominent research firm SRI to St. Petersburg and keeping the grand prix in the city.

"Our relationship with the Rays and our relationship in general with Major League Baseball is important," Baker said. "And I think we need to recognize the importance of our relationship. It is appropriate when they present a very serious proposal to us, that we give it a fair review."

St. Petersburg mayor stays neutral on Rays' plan 06/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 2:14pm]
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