The D.C. Council yesterday began considering whether the city should use public dollars to build a stadium for its new baseball team, drawing a raucous crowd of supporters and opponents to an all-day hearing.
With more than 300 people on hand at 10 a.m., supporters wearing red Washington Senators hats got early prime seating because opponents were staging a rally outside. Despite efforts to maintain order, the hearing was interrupted twice by people who shouted out of turn and were removed by police.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), whose stadium financing package has been the focus of protests for weeks, did not testify and avoided the fifth floor of the Wilson Building during the first 10 hours of testimony, saying he watched a live broadcast on the city's cable channel. In an interview after a midday news conference announcing a traffic control initiative, Williams said he was confident that the stadium will be built.
"It's going to happen," Williams said, although the project requires the approval of the 13-member council. Asked why he chose not to testify, Williams said: "Everyone knows my views. It's important that people disassociate their opinions of baseball from their opinions of me."
After hearing from three dozen of the scheduled 250 witnesses, the 10 council members in attendance appeared to be holding firm to their initial positions -- four in favor of the plan, three against and three offering conditional support.
Opponents of the stadium plan contended that Williams has failed to adequately defend his deal with Major League Baseball to move the Expos from Montreal to Washington in the spring. So far, Williams, who left town for 11 days on a tour of Asia earlier this month, has attended one community meeting to discuss the plan.
One former mayor was in the room: Marion Barry, who is running as the Democratic candidate for a Ward 8 council seat on Tuesday, entered the chamber to scattered applause at 4:20 p.m. -- 61/2 hours after the hearing began.
"I am opposed to this financing plan," Barry told the council, noting that Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards basketball team, paid for much of the construction of MCI Center while Barry was mayor. "This is the biggest stickup by Major League Baseball since Jesse James was doing train robberies."
Afterward, Barry said in an interview that he will continue to try to stop the deal. "Nobody could refute what I said," he added.
Barry was the highest-profile of the numerous stadium opponents, who said the plan is a poor way to use public dollars and will not bring significant economic development to the city. Supporters of the stadium, which would be built on the Anacostia waterfront in Southeast, said it would spur economic revitalization and bring renewed pride and excitement to a city that lost its team 33 years ago.
The cost of the stadium was thrown into question late Wednesday, when the city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, estimated the total package at $530 million, more than the mayor's figure of $440 million. The stadium would be funded through a gross receipts tax on large businesses, a tax on concessions and an annual rent payment by the team.
Greg Rhett, a board member for the Marshall Heights Community Development Group, said: "No one gave us any information until the deal was struck. Now we're told, 'Take it or leave it.' As a taxpayer and voter, that's unfair."
William A. Hanbury, president of the Washington DC Convention and Tourism Corp., said the team and stadium would generate an estimated 84,000 hotel room reservations a year.
"This is an important investment in keeping our competitive edge and enhancing our overall image as a destination," Hanbury said.
At the start of the hearing, the council chamber and an overflow room were filled to capacity, leaving only standing room. But as the day wore on, many people were able to find seats.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, presided over the hearing. Council members Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8) and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), whose ward would include the new stadium, did not attend.
At one point, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) called the mayor's stadium plan "madness, nonsense."
Although more than 250 people had signed up to speak, the council spent the first four hours grilling government witnesses. Eight hours into the hearing, only about 30 nongovernment witnesses had testified.
Sarah Sloan of Southeast became outraged by the pace. "This is an incredibly undemocratic process," said Sloan, eating a sandwich while waiting for her turn as No. 172 on the list of speakers. "The politicians are afraid to hear from the people, because they know people are opposed to the deal."
At one point, several students from Eastern Senior High School pleaded to move up in the order because they were late for football practice and other activities.
"You always say children first, but I get the feeling the baseball stadium is more important than children," said Toney Stover, one of the students. "Whatever millions you spend on the team, why can't you match that and give it to recreation centers and after-school programs and books?"
In fact, the mayor proposed just such an idea Wednesday: a community investment fund worth up to $400 million that would be funded through a portion of taxes on businesses near the new stadium. The plan has received mixed reviews.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who has generally been supportive of the stadium plan, told the crowd that "the money spent on a stadium does not exist for any other program."
A council committee will mark up the stadium legislation Wednesday, and the full council is to take the first vote Nov. 9.
As the hearing approached its 12th hour, more than 60 people remained in the council chambers. Some napped; others read the newspaper or took their shoes off and tried to wait it out.
But Richard B. Westbrook, a former Ward 6 advisory neighborhood commissioner, had had enough.
"I've been here 12 hours," he said as he packed up his briefcase and walked out of the council chambers about 7 p.m. "They're not going to listen to what I say anyway."
Westbrook was 138th on the list of speakers, and he had come to push for the council to put the new stadium near the site of the D.C. General Hospital campus in Southeast as a way to revitalize that neighborhood.
A couple of hours later, Westbrook was back at the hearing, after "a drink and a sandwich." He said it was worth the wait to be able to support the idea of building the stadium near D.C. General.
Evans told the crowd that he was prepared to continue the hearing until 3 a.m., although he added that he would not extend it into a second day. By nearly 1 a.m., the crowd had dwindled to fewer than 25. Hours earlier, Evans had seemed exasperated when he addressed his colleagues.
"You know, guys, we're going to have to do something different here," he said about 9 p.m. "We're only on witness 55.''
About an hour and a half later, Frazer Walton, from the civic association in Kingman Park, an area near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium that would be heavily affected by the team's play there next spring, testified: "We welcome the team to our neighborhood; that's where it should be.''
But Walton said he feared that building the new stadium proposed by Williams could leave D.C. residents bearing the financial responsibility if the franchise fails.
"The team should be named the Washington Outlaws for the deal that's being pulled on this city," he said.
Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who presided, brought a Little League bat to the hearing, which was attended by 10 council members.