TAMPA, Florida -- Attorneys for Hillsborough County have given commissioners permission to talk to the Tampa Bay Rays about future stadium plans, despite the threat of legal action from the City of St. Petersburg.
For several years, the team and St. Pete have been in a stalemate over the future of the club. The two parties have a contract to play at Tropicana Field through 2027, but the Rays have made it clear they don't intend to remain at the park until then. St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster has threatened lawsuits if any party interferes with the current agreement and generally speaking, local municipalities have respected the threat.
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But Hillsborough County commissioners received a letter from their attorney Tuesday suggesting the risk of legal action was minimal if they limit their discussions to "the Rays speaking about their intentions and desires as it relates to the current stadium issue and the Rays' long term plans, goals, and interests."
Attorney Robert Brazel added that because Hillsborough County is not a party to the current use agreement, it is not bound by its terms. St. Pete could only bring a claim for "intentional interference" if a new stadium was built in Hillsborough County and damages were identified. Brazel implied damages were unlikely if St. Petersburg was "compensated for its debt service and other economic losses under the remaining term of the existing lease."
The opinion came at the request of commission chairman Ken Hagen, who campaigned on a 2010 platform of saving the Rays without using public dollars. Most sitting commissioners have opposed committing subsidies toward a stadium, but some could be replaced in this fall's elections.
READ: Attorney's opinion to Hillsborough Commission
Mayor Foster responded to the opinion on Tuesday, telling 10 News: "We aren't interested in damages (and) we expect the team to play in St. Petersburg at the Trop through the term of their agreement."
So while the opinion opens the door for Hillsborough County to discuss future stadium ideas with the Rays, it is not clear if the team would participate since it is a party to the contract.
The Rays did not immediately respond to questions Tuesday afternoon.
The open door also doesn't address the most pressing question in the stadium saga, which is how the county or region could possibly pay for a $500-$600 million stadium.
Hillsborough County's attorneys added that "consistent with the statements of several Commissioners at the April 18th meeting to be inclusive and collaborative, Hillsborough County should conduct any potential discussion with the Rays and their representatives at a regular BOCC meeting, or other public meeting. This will also serve to reduce the County's exposure to any potential claim that might be brought by the City."
Commissioners will discuss the opinion at 10:30 a.m. Thursday.
When contacted by 10 News Tuesday afternoon, St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster said he had not yet seen the opinion.
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