By a 4-4 vote, the St. Petersburg City Council has rejected a proposed amendment to its stadium contract that would have allowed the Rays to explore sites in Tampa in exchange for a $1.4M annual "exploratory fee." Five votes were needed to offer the amendment up to the Rays.
Mayor Bill Foster, who said he may be "the most-hated person in Tampa Bay," encouraged council not to weaken its legal standing by amending the contract, which keeps the Rays at Tropicana Field through 2027.
Both of Tampa Bay's daily newspapers printed editorials this week applauding councilman Charlie Gerdes' proposal that would have broken the stadium stalemate and encouraged regional dialogue. But Foster - and several councilmembers - suggested the city was only negotiating against itself.
"We may be making the mistake of trying to negotiate when we don't have anyone talking back to us," said Councilman Jim Kennedy.
But Gerdes argued the city's negotiating power with the Rays is diminished every year it inches closer to 2027. And the $1.4 million in possible annual revenue from allowing the team to search could help close sagging city budgets.
"I'm not being judgemental about the stalemate," said Gerdes, who, like Foster and Kennedy, is a lawyer by trade. "The only thing I'm being judgemental about is how do we break (the stalemate)...this amendment allows them to look, not to leave."
St. Pete's city attorney, John Wolfe, agreed with Foster and strongly advised council not to make remarks about the Rays' feasibility - either in Tampa or St. Pete.
"You're almost in a position of negotiating against yourself," Wolfe said, indicating opening the door to Hillsborough County could actually open the door to the Rays escaping their committment to Tampa Bay altogether.
"What you say can - and will - be used against you," Wolfe said.
Foster again urged council, which sets policy for the city, to heed Wolfe's advice.
"You're getting expert legal advice from column-writers and sports hosts on the radio...don't do it," Foster told councilmembers. "Listen to your attorneys. I can assure you, the Rays are listening to theirs."
Wolfe cautioned council about a history of municipalities getting out-flanked by professional sports teams. But Gerdes said it was up to the city to capitalize on its leverage.
"We should play offense...not defense," Gerdes said, welcoming a regional search. "We should beat our chests about how great a place St. Pete is to play."
Councilman Jeff Danner agreed, noting that a regional search, which might take into account potential traffic, financing, and highway accessibility problems in Tampa, could actually cast St. Petersburg in a favorable light. But he voted against the amendment anyway.
Danner was joined in voting against the amendment by councilmembers Kennedy, Steve Kornell, Bill Dudley. Gerdes was supported by councilmembers Karl Nurse, Leslie Curran, and Wengay Newton in voting for the amendment.
Wolfe and the city's legal department will still spend the next month or two studying the legal implications of the proposed amendment.
Foster told council he was working to set up another face-to-face meeting with Sternberg, which the Tampa Bay Times is reporting is set - tentatively - for February 15. It's been more than a year since the two leaders last had an extended meeting.
UPDATE: The Rays have released a statement from VP Michael Kalt: "We thank Councilman Gerdes for acknowledging that steps must be taken to ensure baseball's long term future in the area. Today's proceedings highlight the need for
conversation between the Rays and the City of St. Petersburg, and we would welcome that conversation with any and all interested city leaders."