- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

The D.C. Council granted preliminary approval to a baseball stadium financing package by a 6-4 vote with three abstentions yesterday, giving D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams a narrow victory for his often-polarizing project.

The vote arrived after more than seven hours of often-tense debate and did little to quell a strong divide amid council members. A mandatory second vote is slated for Dec. 14 and will be preceded by more debate and revisions to the bill.

“This is a very gratifying day. The council has done a great thing for our city. We’re still not completely there yet, but we’re now gaining significant momentum,” said Mr. Williams, who in an unprecedented step watched much of the legislative debate from the front row of the council chambers and then briefly addressed the council.

“Two things that have long eluded my grasp are now becoming within reach. We now are getting much closer to having baseball in our city, and I think I now have the best working relationship with the council that I’ve ever had,” Mr. Williams said after the vote.

As part of the approval, Mr. Williams told the council that he planned to initiate talks with Major League Baseball to seek out revisions to the relocation pact, which intends to turn the Montreal Expos into the Washington Nationals. At the top of his wish list are strengthening community benefits supplied by the team and working through the mechanics of capping the city’s investment in the stadium. There is no specific timeline for the effort.

“We’re always after a better deal, and I think there are things we can do within the existing parameters of the [relocation] deal to make this a better package,” Mr. Williams said, acknowledging that the stadium pact in which the city shoulders the entire financing burden for the $435.2 million was “rich.”

Voting for the ballpark financing package yesterday were Democrats Jack Evans, Harold Brazil, Sharon Ambrose, Kevin P. Chavous, Sandy Allen and Vincent B. Orange Sr. Voting against were Democrats Adrian M. Fenty and Jim Graham, Republican Carol Schwartz and independent David A. Catania. Voting “present” were council Chairman Linda W. Cropp and Democrats Kathy Patterson and Phil Mendelson.

“You have to remember the [Washington] convention center was a 7-5 vote, the MCI Center was a 8-5 vote,” Mr. Evans said. “If you go to those places now, I don’t think you’d find anybody who thought they were a bad idea.”

The vote split represents a marked shift from informal vote counts expected as recently as Monday. Going into yesterday’s vote, Mr. Graham was eyed as a key “yes” vote, with his support brokered by Mr. Williams in exchange for $45 million in dedicated funds for city libraries. The funds represented a front-end, bonded portion of a larger community benefit fund in the stadium legislation.

But Mr. Graham and the mayor never reached final agreement on deal terms. Any possible accord was then rendered moot when Mrs. Cropp succeeded in getting an amendment approved that strips out the $45 million largess, which would have been funded by an increase in the gross-receipts tax on large D.C. businesses that forms the core of the stadium-financing plan.

With that amendment in place, Mr. Graham quickly turned to vote against the entire ballpark package.

“I’m frustrated with the legislation,” Mr. Graham said. “This benefits baseball and the people who profit from baseball. But what’s in this now for the rest of the people?”

The Cropp amendment was one of three significant alterations that she succeeded in getting passed by the full council. The other two called for the creation of a formal process to seek out private financing sources for the ballpark and the establishment of a search for a new and cheaper ballpark site if the spot near the Anacostia River waterfront is deemed too expensive.

That search would be triggered if the projected cost is pegged at $631 million or more, $100 million above the current cost estimated by city chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi. The estimate from Mr. Gandhi already trumps the estimate by the mayor’s office by more than $90 million.

“Without these changes, I was prepared to vote against this,” Mrs. Cropp said.

Mr. Fenty and Mr. Catania, the two most vocal opponents to the ballpark plan, both excoriated the ballpark project in the course of introducing numerous proposed amendments, nearly all of which failed.

“Promises were made by this city with no intention of keeping them, and now we’re apparently the bad guys for bringing them up,” Mr. Catania said. “This is a bad deal and appears to have come with an endless, bottomless pit of public expenditure.”

Mr. Catania, as he did during a finance committee vote in early November, arrived with 20 proposed amendments but found few supporters on nearly all of them, ultimately electing to save some for the Dec. 14 hearing. Among his package of failed measures was one making Major League Baseball (MLB) responsible for all cost overruns on the stadium. By contract, the District is on the hook for those costs.

“A lot of what he wants sounds good on its face, but it’s in actuality a poison bill designed to kill the [relocation] deal with Major League Baseball,” Mr. Evans said.

Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, said he spoke with Jerry Reinsdorf immediately after the vote and said the head of MLB’s relocation committee was pleased with the result.

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