- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

Members of the D.C. Council met yesterday with the mediator selected to help end a dispute over the lease for the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark in Southeast, and council chairman Linda Cropp followed by providing Mayor Anthony Williams a revised proposal that she said will ensure a positive council vote.

In a letter to Williams, Cropp outlined 12 provisions requested by council members, who said they will not vote in favor of the stadium lease until the changes are made. The new proposal is similar to one presented last week, in that it calls for a cap on how much the city will contribute to the ballpark. The new letter clarifies that the city should pay no more than the $535 million being borrowed for the project, plus a $20 million contribution from Major League Baseball, $37 million raised from baseball activities in 2005 and $39 million in interest and bond premium.

The new letter requests more community benefits, including a new baseball academy in the District, and more appearances by players. It also calls for assurances that the Nationals cannot terminate the lease simply by refusing to pay rent.

City officials have indicated that the council’s requests are reasonable, and are working on several ways to curb possible cost overruns for the stadium project and cap the amount the city must pay. A vote could be scheduled as soon as Feb. 7.

A vote on the lease had been scheduled for Dec. 20, but it was postponed because there was not enough support on the council. After the city let pass a Dec. 31 deadline for lease approval, MLB filed to have a mediator help end the dispute. The District agreed this week, and began meeting with Dennis Archer, an attorney and former mayor of Detroit, who will recommend how the two sides can reach an agreement. Mediation can last no more than 15 days. If the lease is still not approved by then, the city and MLB could enter into binding arbitration.

The council’s meeting with Archer comes when several members have complained about being shut out of the negotiations on the lease.

“I really felt all along we should have been involved, and was taken aback that we were not,” said Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican. “I think they were looking to avoid the council. I would have much preferred to be involved in the process than to look like a naysayer now.”

The lease negotiations, led by members of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, began last summer. But it was not until the end of November that it became clear that the council would vote on the lease once it was finalized. Some city officials, fearful that the council would seek to renegotiate the Baseball Stadium Agreement approved in December 2004, actively argued against the need for a council vote, on the grounds that the lease should be considered part of that original agreement.

Council members said the lease represented a contract, and pointed to a rule requiring all contracts valued at more than $1 million to be approved by the council. In November, the body’s general counsel recommended the council vote, and Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti was preparing an opinion on the matter when Williams, in the interest of being inclusive, decided to submit the lease to the council on Dec. 9, less than two weeks before the scheduled vote.

“A few people were working on the lease and they sent it down with 10 days to vote on it,” said Kwame Brown, at-large Democrat. “And it was like, ‘if you don’t like the lease, you don’t like baseball, and you’re the bad guy.’ Certainly, you look at that and say it was somewhat disrespectful.”

Mayoral aides bristled at the suggestion that the council should have been more involved from the beginning. Vince Morris, a spokesman for Mayor Williams, said council members were briefed routinely on the discussions, and the mayor even made the unusual move of asking the council to meet with Jerry Reinsdorf, MLB’s lead lease negotiator.

While council members did not sit in on the talks with MLB, negotiators did share their concerns over the rising cost of the project, and persuaded MLB to contribute $20 million toward stadium construction.

Ultimately, though, the lease was an agreement to be negotiated between the city and Major League Baseball, Morris said, and it would be abnormal for council members to directly partake in discussions.

“When President Bush goes to negotiate a treaty with China, he doesn’t invite members of Congress,” Morris said. “There’s a legal separation there. The legislative body does not negotiate contracts or execute leases.”

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