TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials can talk to the Tampa Bay Rays about the team's future stadium plans, so long as they don't get too specific, a lawyer for the county said Tuesday.
County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who requested the legal opinion, said he hopes to start that conversation Thursday, the next time his board meets.
"At the end of the discussion, my goal is to make a motion to send a letter inviting the Rays to come here to talk to us," Hagan said, adding that any conversation would take place in public in the interest of transparency.
The Rays, so far, aren't rising to the prospective offer.
"We're going to respectfully decline to comment," Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn said.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster offered his standard response to overtures of any sort from other governments toward the Rays: butt out.
"This is more outside interference in something that is between the Rays and St. Petersburg and Pinellas County," Foster said.
The legal opinion was the latest development in an ongoing tussle between the two sides of the bay over the Rays' future.
Robert Brazel, a managing attorney in the litigation division of the county attorney's office, wrote that the team is bound by its contract with the city of St. Petersburg to play at Tropicana Field. But he wrote that Hillsborough County "is not a party to the lease agreement and is therefore not bound by any of its terms." The agreement runs until 2027.
The county would open itself up to a lawsuit for "intentional interference" only if it goes beyond talking and causes "damages" to St. Petersburg, Brazel said.
But proving that the talks caused harm would be difficult "unless a new stadium is ultimately constructed in Hillsborough County" and unless St. Petersburg is not compensated for losses under the remaining term of the lease.
Talking about future possibilities? That's okay, Brazel said.
"Any discussions with the Rays should be limited to the Rays speaking about their intentions and desires," the memo states, "and the Rays' long-term plans, goals and interests."
Brazel said Tuesday that talks should not go so far as to delve into specific stadium locations or options for paying for it.
"I think this is really a situation where we should be listeners and let the Rays do the talking," Brazel said. "I see it as an information-gathering process for us."
St. Petersburg officials took a dim view of the legal opinion.
Foster said he was glad the memo referred to the possibility of harm and damages. He said the potential for harm goes beyond money to potentially affect long-term relationships between neighboring governments.
Furthermore, he said his government has offered to talk to the Rays about their future. Foster said he would be willing to amend the city's agreement with the team to allow it to explore other locations within Pinellas County, an offer he said has been on the table for two years.
St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe underscored his belief that financial damages to his city would go well beyond lease payments on Tropicana Field if the team leaves before the agreement expires. The agreement itself states that violating its terms would cause "irreparable harm."
"There is not enough money to provide compensation for 'irreparable harm,' " Wolfe said. "The harm caused by someone even trying to lure the Rays to another city would, in my opinion, cause damages and harm to St. Petersburg's image that would result in a valid legal action.
"I am willing to let a court decide who is right."
St. Petersburg City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, who has been critical of Foster's dealings with the Rays, said she'd like to see the mayor get more engaged with the team and its future.
"I think it's a shame the city is letting more time go by without having a serious discussion with the Rays," she said. "We should be having that conversation."
Hagan must win support from his fellow commissioners to send the letter, and the team must take him up on the offer.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe noted that having a Major League Baseball franchise is important to the regional economy. He said it's important that all local governments work together to ensure the team stays. He stopped short of saying he would support sending an invitation to the team.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he believes Hagan is on dangerous ground from his own reading of the opinion.
"It seems to me it puts us on thin ice, if we're interested in them coming to Tampa or Hillsborough County, to engage them," Higginbotham said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has expressed his own willingness to work with the team and other local governments, hadn't read the opinion by Tuesday afternoon but said it sounded encouraging.
"I think any movement forward is good news, whether it's a decision that the Rays remain in St. Petersburg or a decision that the Rays are allowed to talk to all jurisdictions," Buckhorn said. "Stagnation is not a solution."
Hagan said his primary motivation is ending a logjam.
The Rays and MLB commissioner Bud Selig have said Tropicana Field is not a viable home for the remainder of the agreement. The team initially proposed building a new outdoor stadium in St. Petersburg, but withdrew that plan four years ago when it ran into community opposition.
Since that time, a group of civic leaders has recommended that the team be allowed to look for new locations more central to the metropolitan area's population clusters, including in Hillsborough County. The team's ownership has largely remained silent on what it wants to see happen.
Hagan said he wants to extend the offer to the Rays as much as anything to get them to open up about their long-term intentions. He said he will be concerned if they elect not to do so.
"It wouldn't be a good sign," he said.
Times staff writers Kim Wilmath and Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or 813-226-3387.