TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday asked their attorney to tell them, effectively, if they can dance with St. Petersburg's date.
Commissioners voted 6-1 to ask Interim County Attorney Don Odom to review the contract that governs the Tampa Bay Rays' commitment to the city of St. Petersburg and Tropicana Field.
They want to know whether they can talk to team owners about how long they intend to keep playing there and to see what can be done to ensure the Rays stay in the region.
Or would such an entreaty amount to "tortious interference" in someone else's business dealings — a form of meddling St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe has said would leave the meddlers "individually" liable for monetary damages?
"I do not believe the agreement prevents discussion with the Rays about their future," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who initiated the question.
Hagan said he has reviewed the agreement. But he's not a lawyer, so he wants one to advise him. He gave no timeline but expressed frustration that since he first made overtures about the team two years ago, there has been little movement.
Rays owners have said repeatedly they cannot continue playing at Tropicana Field through the end of their contract with St. Petersburg, which is 2027. A business coalition that studied the issue suggested the team might be better off in Tampa, closer to more people and potential corporate supporters.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has said the team is bound by its contract, period, and others should butt out. And Wolfe, his city's attorney, has had this pithy response to people who have talked of courting the team to Hillsborough: "More defendants."
Hillsborough Commissioner Al Higginbotham, the lone vote against consulting his county's attorney, said he thinks his fellow board members are "walking on thin ice." He then offered his own adaptation of an analogy first uttered by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and co-opted and twisted by others since.
"If we're going to be the boyfriend that breaks up the marriage, I'm not going to take part in that," Higginbotham said. "Because (the husband) could have a big fist and a very strong arm."
Other commissioners also expressed caution, while supporting Hagan's request to get information — a tradition the board has generally honored.
They said they want to make sure that if the attorney says county officials can talk with the Rays that any subsequent talks are just that, not negotiations.
Commissioner Victor Crist said the county would be wise to engage representatives of other governments, and possibly the private sector, to take part. And beyond the legal questions, Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he wants to make sure fellow board members don't stir up animosity from Hillsborough's neighbors.
Commissioners generally said they agreed professional baseball is a regional asset that has an economic benefit across Tampa Bay. Any discussions should be framed that way, they said.
"I think everybody realizes the economic impact, and we want the Rays to stay here," Beckner said. "But this does need to be a regional effort and we need to make sure we're not coming in as the 800-pound gorilla trying to disrupt current negotiations."