- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

D.C. officials have agreed to allow a mediator to enter a dispute with Major League Baseball over a lease agreement for a new stadium for the Washington Nationals in Southeast, an indication that the city has not been able to resolve the issue on its own.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams met yesterday with Dennis W. Archer, a former two-term mayor of Detroit, to review the agreement and recommend how the two sides should proceed in their efforts to get D.C. Council approval for the stadium project. If the lease is not approved after 15 days of mediation, the two sides could enter into binding arbitration, a much longer and more costly process.

The city’s selection of Mr. Archer comes about two weeks after Major League Baseball (MLB) requested mediation after the city let pass a Dec. 31 deadline for the lease approval.

City officials downplayed the move yesterday as a simple legal procedure and said they think the stadium issue will be resolved by the end of the month.

“This is just something you do as a formality,” said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Mr. Williams. MLB “recognizes that we’ve made good progress in working with council members.”

Earlier this month, D.C. Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Tuohey, the city’s lead negotiator on the lease, said he was not sure whether the city would agree to enter into mediation. He said having an independent third party review the dispute could be helpful, but he thought an agreement could be reached without it. Mr. Williams also questioned the need for a mediator’s involvement.

Mr. Tuohey yesterday said the city was simply following the guidelines outlined in the baseball stadium agreement (BSA) that brought the Nationals franchise to the District.

“This was a process that was set forth in the BSA,” Mr. Tuohey said. “I’m very pleased with the selection.”

“We are fortunate to have someone of [Mr. Archer’s] stature involved,” Mr. Williams said. “My hope is that our ongoing talks with D.C. Council members will continue to bear fruit.”

MLB officials could not be reached for comment.

The council had been scheduled to vote on the lease on Dec. 20, but the vote was tabled because the measure did not have enough support. Council members are seeking to establish a cap on the amount of money the city can pay toward the stadium. The city is authorized to borrow $535 million for the project, but the last cost estimate was $667 million. The city must bear all costs associated with the stadium under the current agreement with MLB.

A vote could be scheduled on Feb. 7.

During the mediation, the city will be represented by the office of the attorney general. The sports commission will be represented by the firm of Covington & Burling.

It is not clear what Mr. Archer, now chairman of the Detroit law firm of Dickinson Wright, could recommend. The dispute over the lease is a highly unusual case, legal experts have said, because it is the D.C. Council, which is not directly involved in the mediation, that has failed to approve the lease. Experts said it is unlikely Mr. Archer can recommend that the council approve a lease, but he could recommend changes to the lease that he thinks would satisfy everyone and lead to council approval.

The mediation process can last no more than 15 days, according to the agreement that brought the Nationals franchise to Washington.

If the lease is still not approved after mediation, the city and MLB could officially declare a “dispute” and enter into arbitration, a binding process involving a three-member panel that could last as long as seven months. Arbitration is generally viewed as longer, more costly and confrontational.

“We’re not there yet,” Mr. Morris said. “All [Archer] is doing is getting up to speed.”

Last week, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp presented a 10-point plan she said would guarantee the seven votes needed to approve the lease. Key provisions of the plan included establishing a cap on the amount of public money that could go toward the project and finding an outside party to pay for cost overruns.

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