Hillsborough officials holding secret meetings with secret consultants to keep secret on where $400m in Rays stadium funding will come from

A correspondent accidentally referred to me yesterday in email as “Noah,” then immediately apologized; I said no apology was necessary, because I assumed (correctly) that he’d momentarily confused me with WTSP reporter and Shadow of the Stadium blogger Noah Pransky, which I took as a compliment.

And you want to see why, oh man has Pransky been on fire lately in his reporting on the Tampa Bay Rays stadium mess. The short version: Hillsborough County elected officials have been holding stadium meetings so secret that they have been hiding them from their official calendars, while the county has hired outside consultants who appear to be hiding public documents from the public, and even from the members of the county commission.

Here’s a sample, via Pransky:

10Investigates repeatedly requested public records related to stadium discussions from County Commissioner Ken Hagan, and after multiple responses indicating none existed, a county attorney produced a series of text messages and emails between Hagan and Raij from the commissioner’s personal phone and email accounts.

Those messages reveal a pattern of private meetings and behind-the-scenes negotiations on a project that could include hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies. One text, sent from Raij to Hagan on Nov. 14, references a “marked up Rays document,” which has not been turned over.

Other texts between Raij and Hagan coordinate negotiations with local landowners, as well as the county’s response to media questions about the prospective new Tampa stadium – a surprise to several Hillsborough County commissioners interviewed by 10Investigates…

Florida’s public records laws require most records Hagan creates to be turned over when requested by any member of the public, including documents Hagan created and later gives to either the Foley or O’Melveny firms. But no such records have been produced yet in response to 10Investigates’ requests and a pair of county staffers have confirmed the existence of such documents.

Hagan has a long history of refusing to turn over public records to 10Investigates.

Transparency is important here, because the proposed Rays stadium is currently facing a funding gap in the hundreds of millions of dollars: Previous estimates for a retractable-roofed stadium say it would cost about $800 million, and while Pransky’s sources say a fixed-roof stadium could be built for $500-600 million — which, the team already has a fixed-roof stadium, just saying — team owner Stuart Sternberg only wants to kick in $150 million of his own money. So where will the additional $400 million or so come from?

“I would never put the taxpayer on the hook for that entire difference … that doesn’t work at all,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp. “What’s going to have to be seen is … to the extent (the Rays and county) can privately leverage (financing).”

Ah, yes, leveraging. That’s … not actually a way of making money grow on trees, you know that, right, Commissioner Kemp? A private investor is going to want a return on their money, which means getting either rent from the team of some cut of stadium revenues, and if Sternberg wanted to give up that he could just go to a bank and finance it himself, which is what he said he doesn’t want to do.

Of course, “what Stu Sternberg wants” shouldn’t be the guiding principle for Tampa area government, so maybe this is a sign that local officials are trying to find a way to kick back some of the costs for a Rays stadium onto the Rays owner, while using nice words like “leverage” to pretend that that’s not what they’re doing. Or, maybe this is a way to foist costs onto the public while pretending you’re not. Or to just kick the can down the road by pretending a $400 million funding gap isn’t a big deal. Your guess is as good as mine — sure would be nice if there were some public documents to let us know what Hillsborough County officials were discussing here, huh?


4 comments on “Hillsborough officials holding secret meetings with secret consultants to keep secret on where $400m in Rays stadium funding will come from

  1. It’s Loria to the rescue time! He can buy the Rays, and convince some suckers in Portland or Vegas to build him a billion-dollar monstrosity. (Imagine the giant slot machine that lights up after home runs.)

  2. This is all Cobb County’s fault. Also, who negotiated the original (Devil) Rays lease for the city. They should have a statue commissioned for themselves. And hire themselves out to other cities.

  3. Please read “The case for no more public money for Major League Baseball” posted at
    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/case-more-public-money-major-league-baseball-scott-myers/

  4. Some of Hagan’s behaviour is no doubt down to the rule of “unintended consequences”.

    When courts ruled (in many districts long ago) that any documentation a public official produces are part of the official record (even doodles on napkins during lunch, or rough noted jotted down on scrap paper during a meeting) and thus subject to FOIP requirements, officials responded by often not taking any notes and purposely destroying any they might have accidentally taken before they leave the meeting room.

    In other words “I’ve looked in my trash can and in the personal mobile incinerator I carry with me at all times, and I find no documents of any kind relating to the matter you inquired about”

    So, as ridiculous as it sounds, sometimes very large scale deals get done with very little actually committed to paper until the very end.

    None of this excuses the practice, but it may be how it happens that guys like Hagan can continue to do what they do with little recourse.

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