Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Hillsborough commission chairman wants legal opinion about talking with Tampa Bay Rays

TAMPA — Ken Hagan says he doesn't believe a contract between the city of St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Rays prevents other governments from talking with the team about its future in the region.

But to be sure, the Hillsborough County Commission chairman will ask permission from his fellow board members to have their attorney research the issue and report back. He'll make the request during the commission meeting Wednesday.

"I'm not an attorney," Hagan said. "That's why I want the county attorney to look into it and come back with the do's and don'ts. It's been stated that you cannot have any discussion. I do not believe the use agreement states that."

Hagan says that during a meeting Monday, he informed St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster of his intentions to seek a legal opinion. Hagan would say only that the discussion was "cordial," as per an agreement between the two to keep the substance of their conversation between them.

St. Petersburg officials, however, stand by their interpretation of the agreement. They say it forbids Rays officials from even talking with an interested third party about moving out of Tropicana Field before the 2027 season.

But enforcing this prohibition would be tricky.

St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe conceded that if Rays officials met behind closed doors with Hillsborough County officials, he'd have limited knowledge of what they discuss.

"I won't know unless someone tells me," Wolfe said.

If he were to find out either through public statements or documents that they crossed a line, Wolfe said he would then take action against each of the participants.

"I would take it to the (City Council) and ask to sue them, individually," Wolfe said.

But what is that line?

Hagan said from his reading, it's clear it would be problematic for other governments or private players to enter into negotiations with the team about relocating.

But he said he doesn't believe it prevents someone from talking to the team about ways to ensure the Rays remain in the region.

The Rays play at Tropicana Field near downtown St. Petersburg under an agreement that binds the team to the stadium until 2027. Team owners have said the Trop is not suitable for a Major League Baseball franchise and that they don't want to remain there through the remainder of the agreement. They want permission to look elsewhere, including Hillsborough County.

A private business group looked at the team's arrangement and concluded it needed a new stadium, ranking locations in Hillsborough among those that make better sense. Such an arena would be more centrally located to the region's population clusters and would likely enjoy more corporate support, the report from the ABC Coalition said.

That was more than two years ago, with little action since.

Hagan has said that the team gains more leverage with each passing year. The fewer years on the agreement, the less penalty the team likely would face to leave early.

"We've got to break this logjam one way or the other," Hagan said. "I don't believe that status quo is an option."

Foster has consistently said he expects the Rays to uphold their obligation under the lease. He did not return a call for comment.

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]

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