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Stadium foes try political pressure

ST. PETERSBURG — Stadium critics struggling to get their message heard at City Hall unveiled a new tactic Wednesday.

Their message: Help us, and you'll probably get re-elected.

A highly contested mayoral race and five council seats are up for grabs this November and a majority of candidates have already pledged to give voters a final say on the Tampa Bay Rays proposed baseball stadium.

Hoping to capitalize on the political climate, Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront asked the city's elected officials Wednesday to adopt their campaign to give voters greater control over new stadiums funded by taxpayers.

"Stadiums and public subsidies of professional sports teams are becoming 'politically toxic,' " wrote Hal Freedman, POWW's founder, in his letter to Mayor Rick Baker and the City Council. "This may be an opportune time for the City Council to think about placing POWW's ballot initiatives (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) directly on the ballot by Council action. … Candidates for Council & Mayor might also want to take a public stand on these issues."

POWW began circulating two petitions in October to amend the city charter. One amendment would require voter approval on any city funding for professional sports facilities.

The other would require voter approval for substantial changes to St. Petersburg's waterfront parks.

The city charter states that any long-term private development of a waterfront park must be put to a referendum, but the city itself can do what it wants with its land. The amendment on waterfront parks would change that.

The amendment on sports facilities is more far-reaching. It requires voter approval on "construction, renovation, maintenance, operation, replacement financing or refinancing of professional sports facilities," excluding existing contractual obligations.

POWW led the fight against the Rays' waterfront baseball stadium last year, but since that plan was shelved, rallying residents against future stadiums has proven difficult, Freedman said. The political group is still nowhere near the 16,000 or so signatures it needs to get the measures on the November ballot.

Despite the threat of a political backlash, it seems unlikely city leaders will adopt POWW's referendums.

City Attorney John Wolfe has said the amendments could have unintended consequences on city recreational facilities or development opportunities.

Even council members who support a referendum on publicly funded stadiums are wary of POWW's amendments.

"The language is dramatically too broad," said council member Karl Nurse.

Mayor Rick Baker tapped Jeff Lyash, chief executive of Progress Energy Florida, last year to lead a task force on the team's future in St. Petersburg and a new stadium location, but the group is far from issuing any recommendations.

Council Chairman Jeff Danner said it would be premature to hold a vote without a stadium plan on the table.

"You certainly want to make sure you are very clear on where your citizens want to go. A referendum is the easiest way to make that clear," said Danner. "But that doesn't mean I think it should be on the books that you absolutely have to go to a vote on a stadium."

Council member Bill Dudley said he was surprised by POWW's request because the group initially lobbied against the Rays' referendum to build a stadium at Al Lang Field last year.

"It just drives me crazy," he said. "They are beating this horse with a sledgehammer."

Dudley said he would consider allowing residents to vote once the Rays have a new plan.

"Right now," he said, "we would just be voting for the sake of voting."

But POWW said its petitions are about more than just the Rays' stadium.

"All we are saying is that voters should have a voice in these decisions," Freedman said.

Stadium foes try political pressure 03/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 4:59pm]

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