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.
If the case goes to arbitration, Mayor League Baseball and the District probably would go to the American Arbitration Association for a list of arbitrators, baseball officials said yesterday. Typically, both sides would go through the list until they agree on an arbitrator. Once an arbitrator is selected, the city and baseball would argue their points of view on each major provision in the lease.
"The crux is that at the end of the day, the District will build a new stadium for the Nationals, or [baseball] will take the team and move it someplace else," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a stadium supporter. "How it all gets accomplished is anybody's guess. The risk is that baseball could open up the whole process again and ask for new bids from the District, Northern Virginia or Las Vegas."
The postponement came after days of intense lobbying by Williams, who rallied supportive council members, youth coaches, developers and organized labor. In meetings, phone calls and e-mails, they implored council members who appeared to be undecided to vote in favor of the stadium lease.
Administration officials were fairly confident that they had the support of Cropp, Evans, Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6).
Lined up against the deal were David A. Catania (I-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).
"We stopped the stickup in its tracks," Barry said last night. "We are determined to save taxpayers this money. This is an open-ended deal. The costs were changing every other day."
Williams's administration was concentrating on Mendelson, Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7). But Brown said before the vote was delayed that he was leaning against the deal. Schwartz released a statement after the postponement that she was prepared to vote against the deal.
Williams spoke to more than 200 baseball supporters at a rally yesterday at Freedom Plaza, in front of the John A. Wilson Building, and stadium opponents showed up with signs reading, "Schools B4 Stadiums" and "MLB wins, DC loses."
"We want this economic development. Anyone who votes to kill that goose cannot expect to have the total support of the labor community," said Joslyn N. Williams, president of the local chapter of the AFL-CIO, which has supported the stadium project as a way to create construction jobs.
But in many ways Williams was outflanked by stadium opponents, a collection of activists involved in schools, health care and the environment.
Joe Ruffin, a political consultant who said he had become disillusioned with the stadium deal, said that to fight the agreement, he spent thousands of dollars for a half-page advertisement in The Washington Post, mailings to 40,000 households and automated phone calls to 20,000 homes.
Yolanda Odunsi of Northeast Washington said: "The money being spent is a waste because [the stadium] is something that private businesses could take care of."
Odunsi added that she sends her 5-year-old son to a charter school because she is unhappy with the neighborhood public school. "They should prioritize what's important to our lives," she said, "not make businessmen richer."
Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.