By Tim Craig
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; B02
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who is gearing up for his reelection campaign, has decided to avert a ninth-inning showdown with D.C. Council members this year over who gets free baseball tickets to Nationals Park.
During the two previous baseball seasons, Fenty (D) sparred with council members over season tickets to Washington Nationals games until weeks after Opening Day, prompting members to say that the mayor was holding their property hostage because of politics.
But on Thursday, City Administrator Neil O. Albert hand-delivered a season's worth of tickets for Suite 61 to the office of council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).
"It just seemed like the right thing to do," Attorney General Peter Nickels, who often speaks on behalf of the mayor, said of the administration's decision to deliver the tickets. "We have reached our semblance of peace and order with the council."
Although Fenty appears to be trying to build better relations with the council, this year's shipment of free season tickets renews the debate over whether elected city officials should get unlimited access to home baseball games.
Council members can split 19 tickets to the luxury box for each home game; they say they give many of them to constituents or charitable groups. Fenty will have access to a separate suite and box-seat tickets provided by the Nationals as part of the team's lease agreement with the city.
Fenty and council members have been squabbling over tickets to sporting events since shortly after the mayor was inaugurated in 2007. The battles over the perks, including a dispute over tickets to the Verizon Center in 2007, have come to symbolize a toxic relationship between the mayor and the council.
Fenty's overture this year, which comes nearly a month before Opening Day, occurs amid growing indications that his previous tiffs with the council have damaged his political standing.
Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, referred to Fenty's handling of the tickets during an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters Thursday. Dinegar praised Fenty for helping to make the city safer and improving schools. But he said many business leaders have concerns about Fenty's personality.
Fenty's past actions and his tense relationship with the council are dragging down his poll numbers. A Washington Post poll conducted in January found that his approval rating had dipped to 42 percent, a decline of 30 percentage points since January 2008. The council's approval rating has held steady at about 50 percent.
In follow-up interviews, several poll respondents told Post reporters that the mayor's handling of the baseball tickets affected their opinions.
"The price he paid for those actions surely could not have been worth it," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a frequent Fenty critic.
But council members, half of whom are also up for reelection this year, also face criticism over their use of free baseball tickets.
Last spring, Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) introduced a bill to auction off both the council's and the mayor's free baseball tickets to raise up to a half-million dollars to help balance the budget. Brown's bill has not been brought up for a hearing, according to a review of council records.
Brown said Thursday that he is still trying to determine whether the city can legally sell off something that might be Nationals' property. "I haven't spent a lot of energy on baseball tickets," Brown said, "because we are trying to get out of this budget shortfall and trying to get people jobs."
Paul Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, said the issue isn't going away. "The city is strapped for cash. Why don't we go ahead and put them up for auction?" he said.
Staff writer Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.