Hillsborough County Commissioners on Wednesday approved asking the county attorney to advise them on whether they can talk to the Tampa Bay Rays about a new stadium.
County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan had asked his fellow commissioners to authorize a review of the Rays' contract with the City of St. Petersburg, and they gave him a 6-1 victory.
The lone dissenter was Al Higginbotham. He said there's too much at stake if Hillsborough violates St. Petersburg's contract. Higginbotham said he saw no reason to put the county at jeopardy of a lawsuit.
He says the potential penalty for wooing the Rays is a hefty price.
“There's discussion that the first set of damages is $100 million," Higginbotham said.
Hagan has been pushing for talks with the Rays last month, when he played off Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn's vow that he wouldn't try to split up the Rays and St. Petersburg by saying he's willing "to be the boyfriend that causes the divorce."
“This (Rays baseball) is an economic engine of well over $200 million a year,” Hagan said recently. “It’s incumbent upon us to work together to ensure that they remain here.”
Although contractually obligated to play at Tropicana Field until 2027, the Rays have said they will be in a new stadium well before then. Principal owner Stu Sternberg has been seeking the freedom to explore all stadium possibilities in the Bay area.
Even if Hillsborough officials decide they can talk to the Rays, though, it isn't clear the Rays would talk to them. Such talks could be subject to public disclosure.
Hagan has notified St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster of his intent to get a legal opinion.
Bay News 9 talked to Mayor Foster. He says the clause in the contract about the Rays not talking to a third party is ironclad.
He doesn't believe the Hillsborough County attorney will allow the county to open itself up to lawsuit.