Council Vote on Stadium Delayed

By David Nakamura and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Mayor Anthony A. Williams requested yesterday that the D.C. Council delay today's scheduled vote on a stadium lease agreement between the District and Major League Baseball as council support for the ballpark project appeared to be waning.

The last-minute move angered Major League Baseball officials, who threatened to take the lease deal to binding arbitration if it is not finalized by Dec. 31. But council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who complied with the mayor's request, said she does not expect to schedule a vote until after Jan. 3, when the council reconvenes from its winter break. Cropp held a rare closed-door meeting with some of her colleagues late yesterday to explain the delay.

If the lease is not approved by the end of the month, "the City will be in default on its contractual commitments and we will then have no choice but to prepare for arbitration," Major League Baseball President Robert A. DuPuy said in a letter to Cropp. "In arbitration, all prior concessions by MLB would be revisited."

The stadium lease is crucial to the project, which would build a stadium along the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington. Without a lease, the city has said it will not issue construction bonds, and baseball has said it will not sell the Washington Nationals. Delays could set back the construction timetable on the ballpark, scheduled to open in March 2008, and further raise the cost of the project.

Cropp said council attorneys were concerned about some recent changes made to the lease by the Williams administration and suggested that the mayor withdraw the document. She did not describe the changes but said she hoped baseball would be patient and wait for the council to vote early next month.

"It's only a couple of days" later than the Dec. 31 deadline, Cropp said. Asked whether the council would have approved the lease today, Cropp said: "I don't know where the votes were. I don't think either side had the votes. Some people just had not made up their minds."

In a written statement, Williams (D) said he asked the council to withdraw the lease from consideration because city officials were making changes to the document, which baseball and the city agreed upon after three months of negotiations. Aides to the mayor described the changes as relatively minor, such as increasing the number of free tickets for city youth from the 8,000 stipulated in the lease. Baseball officials would have to agree to such changes, and it is unknown whether they would.

But some council members said the mayor had failed to line up the seven votes necessary to have the lease approved by the 13-member body. Council members, who approved a stadium budget of $589 million in public funds, have become increasingly worried about the rising price of the project, whose costs were estimated by city financial officials at $667 million last week.

"This is evidence that the votes weren't there," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who had told colleagues that he probably would vote against the lease. "We could not have asked for anything better than more time to explore a better deal. Now that it's out there in the public domain, this will force people who have been hesitant to seek something better to do so."

In his statement, Williams said he is working "aggressively to get assistance from the federal government, from developers and from Major League Baseball to put together the best deal possible for the city."

A group of developers sent Williams a letter yesterday offering to pay for $12 million worth of repairs to roads around the stadium, hoping to ease council members' concerns that the city will have to pay for $36.5 million in infrastructure improvements that are not in the city-approved budget.

At least two groups bidding to buy the Nationals -- one headed by D.C. entrepreneur Jonathan Ledecky and one headed by Tennessee developer Franklin L. Haney Sr. -- visited council members in recent days to say they would cover stadium cost overruns, according to several members who met with the groups.

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