Hillsborough County commissioners showed Wednesday that they are serious about courting the Tampa Bay Rays.
By a 6-1 vote, commissioners asked the county attorney to analyze the lease agreement that ties the Rays Major League Baseball team to St. Petersburg until 2027. Commissioners want to know if the contract prohibits Hillsborough representatives from talking to Rays officials about their future plans.
Commissioner Ken Hagan, who made the motion for the legal analysis, noted that the Rays had one of the worst attendance records in baseball last year despite making the playoffs three out of the last four years. The Rays have made it clear they do not want to stay at St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field for the 15 years remaining on the lease.
To Hagan, that means the Rays will leave the region if St. Petersburg won't let the team look across Tampa Bay for a new home.
"When a community has a $200 or $300 million economic engine, I feel it's incumbent on elected officials to do everything we can so that team, this engine, remains in the region," Hagan said.
Hagan said he thinks Hillsborough officials can talk to the Rays without fearing a lawsuit from St. Petersburg, although that city's leaders have threatened legal action to protect the existing lease. Hagan said he thinks the lease only prohibits negotiations or agreements regarding the use of a particular facility.
"But it does not prevent discussions about their plans, goals (or) the viability of this team remaining in the region for the long-term," he said.
The only "no" vote was cast by Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who said the county was treading on thin ice from a legal standpoint. He recalled a widely reported statement by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who said he did not want to be "the boyfriend who broke up the marriage" between St. Petersburg and the Rays.
"If we're going to be the boyfriend that breaks up the marriage, I'm not going to take part in that," Higginbotham said, "because that boyfriend could have a big fist and a strong arm."
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster decline to comment Wednesday. St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe said Hillsborough commissioners have the right to ask their attorney to look at the lease, but he cautioned against taking the matter further.
"If they go in the direction we feel is in violation of the contract or violates the principles of law, I will ask the city council to file the appropriate lawsuit," Wolfe said.
St. Petersburg City Councilman Steve Kornell said the vote contradicts Hillsborough commissioners' past statements about promoting regionalism and unity among Tampa Bay's cities and counties.
"The thing that baffles me a little bit is we're talking about regionalism, but they're not acting like it. They're acting very parochial," Kornell said. "St. Pete is part of that region."
Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin Beckner agreed, saying that an aggressive move to steal the Rays would endanger the relationship with Pinellas County and St. Petersburg.
"I've heard from them their concerns that we are going to create bad blood and we're going to be interfering with their negotiations," Beckner said.
In other business, commissioners adopted a resolution to name a portion of Interstate 275 in Hillsborough County near the Hillsborough-Pasco county line after Tampa police officer Michael Joseph Roberts. He was shot and killed in the line of duty Aug. 19, 2009.
Roberts' widow, Cindy, attended the designation along with state Sen. Jim Norman, a Republican from Carrollwood, and state Rep. Shawn Harrison, a Tampa Republican. Cindy Roberts said the memorial was appropriate because her husband often talked about how many deer he saw beside the interstate as he was driving home. She said the memorial will be seen by other first responders who live in Pasco but work in Hillsborough County.
"Quite a few do live in southern Pasco County, and it's a way to honor their comrades and to remind them there is no such thing as a routine call," Cindy Roberts said.
Commissioners also passed a resolution in support of a bill sponsored by Norman and Harrison that would give a lifetime exemption from property taxes to the surviving spouses of any service member killed in battle. Norman said the measure will have to be passed by 60 percent of both legislative chambers so it can be put on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.