ST. PETERSBURG — They are a self-appointed committee of movers and shakers who say that the Tampa Bay Rays need a new stadium and that planning should begin when the economy improves.
They have not recommended a construction timetable or a specific site. They are just making "observations,'' they say.
Nevertheless, the ABC Coalition now finds itself thrust into the St. Petersburg mayoral race with an accusation that its members are wrongfully meddling with Tropicana Field's status as baseball's home in St. Petersburg.
Candidate Kathleen Ford this week called the committee's work "tortious interference,'' a concept from English common law that allows for lawsuits against third parties who interfere with contractual relationships — in this case the Rays' agreement with the city to play at the Trop.
Both city and coalition attorneys scoffed at that notion. The coalition is just studying stadium possibilities at the request of the Rays and Mayor Rick Baker, not inducing the team to break its Trop agreement, they said.
And nothing will happen without City Council approval.
But on at least one occasion, city officials were so miffed at the coalition's direction that administrator Rick Mussett, the city's "liaison'' to the coalition, deliberately skipped a meeting in case the city chooses to sue the coalition down the road.
That occurred when the coalition decided to study the demographics of downtown Tampa, Westshore and the state fairgrounds as possible stadium locations.
City Attorney John Wolfe says he advised Mussett to avoid a recent coalition meeting when the Tampa demographics were discussed.
"If we eventually have to bring action (against the coalition) for tortious interference, then we should not be at the table,'' Wolfe said this week.
Such litigation would occur only if the coalition actually tried to talk the Rays into leaving the Trop, Wolfe said. And that hasn't happened.
The coalition is expected to report its findings to city and county officials and to community groups within the next few months, said Charlie Harris, the coalition's attorney.
ABC "is simply collecting and disseminating information about the way baseball can be successful in our community,'' Harris said. "We are not advising either the city or the Rays to terminate or modify the existing agreement.''
The 1979 ruling that set Florida precedent for tortious interference involved a Lee County land owner who had promised a real estate broker a 6 percent commission to sell some property. When the broker found a buyer, the landowner consummated the deal with a different broker at a lower commission.
The court ruled that the original broker could not only sue the landowner for breach of contract but could also sue the buyer for tortious interference with the 6 percent commission. The buyer knew of the contract, the court ruled, and intentionally took part in breaching it.
In explaining her beef with the coalition, Ford also mentioned its demographic studies of Hillsborough locations.
"There is some harm when someone talks about moving the team to Tampa,'' she said. Among other things, business investors might shy away from putting money into the Dome District if they think the team may move.
Ford also contends Baker violated the city charter by helping form the ABC coalition without council approval.
In fact, Baker also is tortiously interfering with the city's contract with the Rays, which runs until 2027, she said in an interview.
"The mayor does not have the authority to discuss a new stadium or a new location'' without prior approval of the council, she said.
The coalition operates like a de facto city committee, she said, and city committees like the Pier task force must be approved by the council.
The coalition was formed last year after the Rays said they couldn't play competitively at the Trop over the long haul and a proposed waterfront stadium fell through.
Baker asked Florida Progress CEO Jeff Lyash to assemble community leaders to study what should happen next.
Lyash appointed ABC's 10 other board members, including several north county and one Tampa representative. County development director Mike Meidel serves as "liaison'' from the Pinellas County Commission.
Staffing is largely private though city clerks take coalition board minutes.
ABC is not a city committee, Wolfe said. It is an independent corporation that gives input on city affairs, much like the council of neighborhood associations or the chamber of commerce, which also studied the Trop and recommended a new stadium.