1. Opinion

A swing and a miss on Rays talks

Published Feb. 7, 2013

For all of the determination to stay in the big leagues, the leadership in St. Petersburg City Hall is too often minor league. The City Council on Thursday did not just give up discussing a smart proposal to let the Tampa Bay Rays pay for the right to review stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Council members could not even agree to let the city attorney study the idea. The disappointing debate reflected the paranoia, insecurities and misjudgments that make breaking the stadium stalemate so difficult.

All council member Charlie Gerdes wanted was for the council to agree to a broader discussion about whether to ask the Rays to pay at least $1.42 million a year to explore stadium sites in both counties. It was an appropriate way to circumvent Mayor Bill Foster's intransigence and break the deadlock with the Rays, who reasonably want to look in both counties at once. But even Gerdes' motion to ask the city attorney to study his proposal failed on a tie vote. What sounds so reasonable to the county commissions in Pinellas and Hillsborough and many business leaders on both sides of the bay morphs into a suspicious plot to the mayor and too many council members.

To be fair, the council's indecision is colored by the poor advice from Foster and City Attorney John Wolfe. They are not representing city taxpayers' best interests in the short term or the long term. Foster is looking out for his re-election campaign, and Wolfe has too much pride of authorship tied up in the city's long-term lease with the Rays. Their desperation to cling to the lease with a franchise that does not see a future in outdated Tropicana Field is not an effective strategy for keeping the Rays in Tampa Bay, and they are positioning the city for a lawsuit instead of exploring better options.

Foster and Wolfe are far off base in insisting the city has a strong negotiating position. As Gerdes pointed out, the position today is weaker than it was the day before. Every year that reduces the debt on Tropicana Field and the years left on the lease strengthens the Rays' position. St. Petersburg could still claim harm if the Rays left after most of the stadium bonds are paid off in 2016, but Foster's vision of hundreds of millions of dollars in damages based on moldy economic studies is a fantasy.

The best public policy for St. Petersburg and the region is to never get to lawsuits and the amount of damages. The best way to do that is to begin exploring options for stadium sites in both counties without jeopardizing the city's lease with the Rays. But the council's conversation Thursday exposed many old fears that such a vibrant city should have overcome by now: distrust of the Rays owner, jealousness of Tampa, and suspicions that thinking regionally automatically harms St. Petersburg.

As Gerdes put it, the city has plenty to offer and should be playing offense instead of defense. While the City Council remained paralyzed Thursday, there will be other opportunities to move forward. Maybe Foster and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg will miraculously reach an agreement when they meet privately next week. Maybe Sternberg could make a personal pitch to the City Council as he did to the county commissions.

If nothing else offers optimism, there's this: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in four days.


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