Friday, September 17, 2004

Jack Evans, the D.C. Council’s outspoken finance chairman, lashed out yesterday at Major League Baseball, which has delayed a relocation decision on the Montreal Expos for nearly three years.

“Major League Baseball is so screwed up, they probably won’t give us the team anyway,” Mr. Evans said on WTOP-AM’s “The Politics Program.” “I have nothing but disrespect for the owners of Major League Baseball, to be honest with you. And if they drag this thing out any longer, they can take the team and put it in Northern Virginia, and I hope it fails. Good for them.”

Mr. Evans, reached later in the day by The Washington Times, stood by his comments on the radio. The Ward 2 council member has been frustrated by MLB’s chronic inability to make a decision on the future of the Expos and said that frustration is nearing a breaking point.

“[MLB] just can’t seem to get there, can’t seem to make a decision,” Mr. Evans said. “But where else can they go, really? There’s nowhere else that’s viable [besides the District]. The whole situation has just gotten so ridiculous. Everybody’s all worked up, and it’s unfortunate.”

MLB executives were not available to comment.

Inflammatory as Mr. Evans’ comments were, they probably will not have a major impact on negotiations city officials are conducting with baseball’s relocation committee. The two sides are working on a 30-page memorandum of understanding that will govern the move of the Expos to Washington, the short-term use of RFK Stadium and a lease for a new ballpark.

Mr. Evans’ comments, however, arrive at a rugged time in the long and winding Expos process. Officials for both the District and Northern Virginia believe they are leading the race for the relocation of the Expos. But MLB refuses to pinpoint a target date for its decision, other than to say it has a firm goal to move the Expos in time for the 2005 season. Less-defined temporal goals for an Expos announcement have been reduced to mere chatter.

The two jurisdictions are competing and under pressure to complete a stadium-lease deal — something MLB is demanding before the Expos move — before their opportunities for the team run out. Mr. Evans told The Times on Thursday a decision for the District must arrive by early October. Mr. Evans said a later decision would not give the D.C. Council enough time to consider a ballpark-financing package before the terms of three key baseball supporters on the council expire in early January.

D.C. officials also want a quick resolution in order to prepare RFK Stadium for next season. Converting the stadium for baseball would require four to six months, but that window is closing fast.

In Northern Virginia, the commonwealth’s ability to retain ballpark-related tax revenue to help fund stadium construction expires Dec. 31. But several steps must be taken before that date to beat the deadline — the signing of a lease deal that would bind the Expos to Northern Virginia and a formal notification of that deal to Richmond legislators. Officials for the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority declined to reveal a drop-dead date for an Expos decision, but it is likely to be in late November or early December.

Those timetables, however, could conflict with an ongoing federal lawsuit filed by former limited partners of the Expos. In the racketeering suit, MLB must give the U.S. District Court 90 days notice before it relocates the team. MLB lawyers gave that formal notice Tuesday.

In the mind of Jeffrey Kessler, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, that notice means MLB cannot commit formally to any relocation before mid-December, even if there is a stadium lease deal signed with either jurisdiction. Mr. Kessler will ask the district court for a preliminary injunction “to preserve the status quo.”

“I would think anything that enjoins or formally binds baseball to a new city is going to be a problem,” Mr. Kessler said.

MLB officials insist the lawsuit will not interfere with its plans for the Expos.

On top of all of this deadline pressure and legal conflict, MLB also must find a way to solve the continued objections of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who is vehemently against a move of the Expos to the Washington area.

Mr. Evans’ comments on WTOP came on the heels of a lively debate on ballpark financing with Kwame Brown and Vincent Gray.

Both men posted upset wins Tuesday in Democratic primary elections for D.C. Council seats and both men are against the use of public dollars for a stadium. Because the District’s voting population is overwhelmingly Democratic, the two are likely to be winners in the general election.

Mr. Evans spent several minutes on the air explaining the District’s proposed funding tools for a stadium: sales and use tax revenue on ballpark-related commerce, annual lease payments from the team owner and a return of the gross-receipts tax on large D.C. businesses. A similar tax was used to help finance MCI Center. The tax, Mr. Evans said, is being targeted at only those businesses with $5 million or more in annual revenue, representing only a small fraction of the city.

“There are lots of people [in the city] who do not have a clear understanding of this. There are lots of people who do not want to spend any public dollars on a baseball stadium,” Mr. Gray said.

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