- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

Major League Baseball yesterday filed to use a mediator to help resolve its dispute with the District over a lease agreement for the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark in Southeast — a first step in what could be a lengthy and costly arbitration process.

But city officials downplayed the move as a common legal maneuver and said the two sides are close to approving lease changes that will satisfy council members.

The league, which had threatened arbitration if the lease was not approved by the D.C. Council by a Dec.31 deadline, could ask an arbitrator to enforce the lease as written. First, though, the two sides must go through a 15-day process of mediation, which is nonbinding. The league has filed its request with the American Arbitration Association.

“It is our contractual right to seek mediation as a tool to convince the parties to fulfill their obligations as set forth in the contract that was agreed to more than a year ago,” MLB president Bob DuPuy said.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other city leaders said they expect to resubmit the lease to the council before binding arbitration gets under way and said they were skeptical an arbitrator could force the D.C. Council’s hand.

“This is merely a stake in the ground,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission and the city’s lead baseball negotiator. “There will be no arbitration. We’ll have this resolved before then. We’re moving very vigorously on several fronts to finalize this matter.”

Several members of the D.C. Council have said they will not approve the lease until they are assured the city will not be forced to pay for all cost overruns on the stadium. The city is only authorized to borrow $535million for the project, but a recent estimate pegs the cost as $667million. The city is responsible for all ballpark costs, except for a $20million contribution from MLB.

Williams described the ongoing talks with MLB as a “give and take.” He declined to discuss specifics but indicated the city was working toward establishing a cap on the amount of overruns the city would be forced to pay. The city is also talking with private developers and the federal government about contributing.

“We want to get something that can work with the council as soon as we can,” Williams said.

Meanwhile yesterday, Williams snapped back at DuPuy for recently criticizing the city for missing several stadium-related deadlines.

In The Washington Post on Tuesday, DuPuy wrote that the District “is not an easy place with which to do business” and said requests by the city to have MLB contribute more money for the ballpark were unreasonable.

Williams acknowledged the city was “not a paradigm of efficiency” but countered that MLB has missed deadlines of its own.

“I don’t want to pick a fight because we are at a delicate stage, but how many commitments and pledges has baseball made on things they were going to do by a certain date?” Williams said. “We’re going to have a city selected by a certain date. … How long are we going to wait for that? We’re going to have an owner selected by a certain date. … How long have we waited for that? No one in this movie is in a position to point fingers at anyone else.”

Also yesterday, the sports commission board of directors voted to pay $2.9million for two outside contractors to handle required inspection and testing of the ballpark design and structure. The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the agency in charge of such work, recommended the commission hire contractors because the DCRA would not be able to do the work as quickly.

The commission awarded the contract to D.C.-based Lourenco Consultants, with Hillis-Carnes Engineering Services of Annapolis Junction as a subcontractor.

“DCRA doesn’t have the staffing to handle this, nor do they have the expertise,” said board member Lloyd Jordan, a former director of the DCRA.

But some board members objected to the contract because it could be more costly.

“We are not some private developer who says, ‘Look, I am going to spend the money to get this job done,’” board member Ronald Ross said. “We have a very limited budget, which is under a lot of pressure.”

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