By David Nakamura and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
D.C. Council member Marion Barry accused Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday of "fumbling and bumbling" the debate over a new baseball stadium and claimed credit for rallying a majority of the council to block the mayor's ballpark plans.
Barry (D-Ward 8) said he had been negotiating his own deal late last week that would have ensured the council's support of the lease, but that plan fell through after the mayor's office botched it. Barry said, he then recruited a council majority to vote against the ballpark lease agreement. Late Monday, Williams (D) asked the council to postpone the vote.
"I'm standing strong to say whether the vote is tomorrow or whether it is later, there are at least seven of us on the Council who remain strong and will still block this horrible . . . agreement," Barry said in a written statement.
To some on the council, Barry seemed to be exhibiting more leadership than Williams or council Chairman Linda W. Cropp. Still, his involvement in the negotiations appears to have further complicated an already politically perilous campaign to approve the stadium lease agreement.
Since the council approved the mayor's ballpark plans one year ago, three of Williams's supporters have been replaced by more skeptical council members. And Cropp (D) and other members are seeking higher office or reelection and are reluctant to vote for a deal that many city residents view as overly generous to Major League Baseball.
At a midday news conference yesterday, the mayor acknowledged that he did not have the votes to win council passage. As his lobbying offensive continued, Williams pledged to improve the lease agreement sufficiently over the next two weeks to win a council vote tentatively scheduled for the first week in January.
But city leaders appeared divided at a subsequent closed-door meeting in Williams's office suite yesterday afternoon.
Mark H. Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said he was considering hiring a risk-management company to oversee construction and assume responsibility for all cost overruns, according to a city government source with knowledge of the meeting. But Cropp continued to push to change the stadium site from the planned location along the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington to an alternative site near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the source said.
"I will do everything in my power to ensure the best deal for the residents of the District," Williams said at his news conference. "I hope the council members will rise above politics to keep the Washington Nationals in D.C."
The council has grown increasingly concerned about the project's rising price. The council approved $589 million in public funds, but recent estimates by city financial officials put the cost at $667 million.
Although the council's next scheduled meeting is not until Jan. 4, baseball President Robert A. DuPuy said in a letter to Cropp on Monday that baseball would prepare to take the stadium deal to binding arbitration if the lease was not finalized by Dec. 31.
Tuohey had breakfast yesterday with Richard Weiss, an attorney for baseball, and said he believes baseball will allow the city two or three weeks to find a way to secure council support.
In the frantic days before what would have been the council's vote yesterday, Williams and his aides furiously lobbied council members who were considered swing votes. Williams was unable, however, to offer the one thing many council members wanted -- a promise from Major League Baseball to cover additional cost overruns.
"I've asked for nothing. It's not about that for me," said council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who has objected to the stadium deal. "When I'm in the community, people say, if we're going to pay for baseball, tell me at what point do we stop? At what point are there brakes on this?"
But as Williams lobbied, so did Barry. Thursday, he summoned Brown, David A. Catania (I-At Large), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) to a meeting in his fourth-floor office at the John A. Wilson Building. Williams and his advisers joined them, Barry said, and Williams's aides confirmed.
Barry said yesterday that he had intended for D.C. entrepreneur Jonathan Ledecky, who is one of eight bidders trying to buy the Washington Nationals, to present a plan Ledecky had agreed to with Barry. If baseball sold Ledecky the Nationals, Barry said, Ledecky had agreed to cover cost overruns on the stadium and give African Americans a 40 percent equity stake in the team.
But Barry said he was told by Ledecky's adviser, Frank Smith Jr., a former D.C. Council member, that baseball officials had gotten wind of the plan and told Ledecky to make no such offer. According to several council members in the room, Stephen M. Green, the mayor's top adviser on baseball issues, acknowledged he had tipped off baseball officials.
Furious, Barry accused Green of sabotaging the deal, and the meeting broke up without further discussion, several people at the meeting said.
"I went off," Barry said. "This was too delicate a thing to call MLB."
Asked to comment, Ledecky said: "I have not negotiated anything with anybody regarding the stadium lease agreement. That is not the role of a prospective owner."
Baseball officials said yesterday that they had no conversations with Ledecky about his discussions with the city.
Green did not respond yesterday to messages left at his office. Williams declined to discuss the blowup, saying he does not know what was supposed to happen at the meeting.
"I went down there for a meeting with Mayor Barry and Mr. Ledecky, and [there was] no Ledecky, nowhere to be found," Williams said.
The next day, DuPuy and John McHale Jr., baseball's executive vice president for administration, visited Barry. Barry said he told them the lease deal would be blocked by eight council members -- the four in the room with him the day before, along with Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) -- if Ledecky were not chosen as the owner.
" 'We're not going to be dictated to,' " DuPuy replied, according to Barry.
"Well, you're not being dictated to," Barry said he responded. "This is a negotiation."
DuPuy declined to comment yesterday.
In interviews yesterday, Brown, Gray and Mendelson said that although they had never agreed to support Barry's plans, they believed that Williams and his staff did not seem to be fighting as hard for a better deal.
Discussions about a potential owner covering overruns "said to me that there were some options that were not being explored by the mayor," Mendelson said. "The only leverage being shown by D.C. toward baseball in the past year and a half was the eight council members who were willing to say no."
In any case, Gray said, the lease was doomed.
"There wasn't much left after that," Gray said.
Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.