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Stadium backers decide next step

Published Oct. 1, 2005

(ran LT, ET of NATIONAL)

Tampa and Hillsborough County government officials will bypass an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court and instead ask a Hillsborough judge to reconsider his dramatic ruling Friday that Tampa's NFL stadium deal is unconstitutional.

County Attorney Emmy Acton made the announcement after a Saturday afternoon meeting of government officials including Mayor Dick Greco and County Administrator Dan Kleman.

As he left, Greco said there had been several conversations Saturday with officials of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He would not reveal what was said, and team officials could not be reached for comment.

The public officials agreed, though, that they had not yet reached a complete understanding of the legal limbo Circuit Judge Sam Pendino's ruling has created for the stadium project _ a ruling one national expert said Saturday will send "shock waves" through the NFL.

In his ruling on the lawsuit by former Mayor Bill Poe, Pendino objected to the clause giving the Bucs the first $2-million a year of non-Buccaneers revenue at the stadium. Such an arrangement, Pendino ruled, illegally benefited a private business. He prohibited the sale of public bonds to finance construction.

Acton said the local governments have 10 days to seek a rehearing before Pendino.

The issue they plan to argue, Acton said, is "severability," _ a doctrine, included in language of the stadium agreement, that if one part of the deal is unconstitutional, the rest is unaffected. Acton tried to ask Pendino about the issue in the courtroom Friday, but he declined to give an answer.

Poe's attorneys have one, though: The local governments don't have the right to ask for a rehearing before Pendino.

They cited a Dec. 23 agreement signed by attorneys for Poe and the governments when elected officials were pressing for the fastest possible solution to the lawsuit.

One sentence states: "The parties agree that there shall be no motion for rehearing of the trial court's judgment in the consolidated trial except for mistake or as may be necessary to preserve a party's right to perfect an appeal."

As Poe attorney Chris Bentley sees it, "there is no mistake, and they don't need this to appeal. No way can they have a rehearing.

"They wanted the language," Bentley said. "At the time they didn't want a delay. I'm going to ask the stipulation be enforced and see what the judge does. I just like everybody to play by the rules they agreed to."

Acton said Saturday that Bentley is flat wrong in his interpretation.

Meanwhile, a sports economist at the University of Chicago, saying Pendino's ruling was unprecedented, predicted Saturday that "it's going to send some shock waves through the NFL."

"This could potentially be path-breaking," said professor Allen R. Sanderson, who said Pendino's ruling could have an impact on stadium-building debates in Minneapolis and in Seattle, where the Washington Constitution has similarities to Florida's. Sanderson considered testifying on behalf of Poe but begged off because of other commitments.

Andy Zimbalist, the Smith College economics professor who testified on behalf of Poe, said Saturday that several NFL teams have benefited financially from non-football events in the stadiums they use, including teams in Dallas, Houston and Cleveland.

But he suggested the biggest impact of Pendino's ruling might be symbolic rather than legal because of the particular nature of the Florida Constitution.

"The fact there has been a successful challenge to wholesale giveaways cities have engaged in" will encourage stadium protest groups and induce sports teams to moderate their stadium demands, he said.

Back in Tampa, local officials have high hopes of renegotiating the troublesome clause.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura called the $2-million clause a "pittance" when compared with the $16-million-plus the team could make each year in a new stadium from luxury boxes, naming rights and other features. Based on his talks with Bucs attorneys Friday night, and the fact that the judge said good things about other parts of the stadium agreement, Chillura said he is hopeful a new deal can be worked out.

"After reading it again at 3:30 this morning, I think it's a damn good ruling, a win-win for both sides."

Acton said that government officials are assuming that the rest of the stadium deal is valid.

Asked what is now keeping the Bucs in Tampa, Acton replied, "the fact we're building the stadium."

Officials say they have enough cash to keep building through the middle or end of April. Greco said Saturday that construction would continue "for a while." County commissioners are scheduled to meet April 9 to figure out how to finance further construction.

Officials also have pointed out that under the agreement, if the stadium is not finished on time, the Bucs will be owed a penalty of $437,500 for each game they miss.

Poe's attorney said all these assumptions are now in question in the light of the judge's ruling.

"I don't think any court is going to enforce an unconstitutional contract," Bentley said. ". . . If the county ever wants out of it, the county is probably going to argue that, and probably going to prevail."

Bentley's partner, Diane Tremor, also speculated that the governments are going to have a hard time persuading bond buyers to invest in the stadium project as long as there is the possibility of another legal challenge from Poe.