How Could The Mayor Complain That His Own Deal Stinks
Written by Michael Lewis on November 18, 2010
By Michael Lewis
You almost feel sorry for Mayor Carlos Alvarez as the recall vise he’s caught in squeezes tighter and tighter.
The county commission applied the latest turn of the screw, ordering him to negotiate with the Florida Marlins to win something back from the stadium giveaway deal.
Unfortunately for all, especially taxpayers, it was Mr. Alvarez himself who agreed to give the Marlins everything in a deal that he both defended and lauded.
Now the commission is telling him to say the county handed the team far too much.
Well, of course it did — the county’s worst public-private deal ever.
While taxpayers will pump in $3 billion, the team gets every penny from ticket sales, advertising, naming rights, luxury boxes, concessions, broadcast contracts and more, plus the lion’s share from non-baseball events in the county-owned stadium all year long.
The county even lent team owners $35 million interest-free as their only cost other than minimal rent, which they list as the largest slice of their stadium "contribution." What makes rent a contribution rather than operating expense is a question only county officials could doubletalk through.
To be fair to the mayor, nine of the 13 commissioners were sucked in and voted yes, so they share blame.
But leaked financials three months ago revealed that the team that pleaded poverty may well be baseball’s most profitable. That came just as the mayor pushed through his double-digit tax hike as unemployment soared and homes were being repossessed.
As public outcry justifiably built, commissioners suddenly started asking why the Marlins should get a $3 billion gift. They ordered the mayor this month to seek something back within 60 days to muffle complaints.
County officials never saw team financials in advance. Commissioners should of course have known upfront and rejected the giveaway. A few actually asked, though they got no answers.
But now five of them might also face recall votes.
Their desperate ploy: with contracts long signed, stadium rising and minus a legal leg to stand on, beg the Marlins to give us something — anything.
Unfortunately for Mr. Alvarez, it’s more than a teensy bit awkward to ask the Marlins to reopen talks based on the obvious fact that the deal he personally engineered was a needless giveaway.
Besides, he’d be annoying a team that just handed him $50,000 to fight a vote to recall their own guy in the mayor’s chair.
We’d love to hear the pleading in that conversation.
It mightn’t be the so-called strong mayor himself talking but his deputy, County Manager George Burgess, whose job ends in 2012 anyway. Voters erased it following the stadium giveaway and tax hike for which Mr. Burgess was the public face.
It was he who handled actual stadium talks with the Marlins. It was he who hid from commissioners the $3 billion cost — indeed, under questioning over six hours before the final vote he carefully ducked the word "billion."
So what could Mr. Burgess seek in a private huddle? We might never know.
To talk, all sides must be willing to at least meet. But nothing forces the Marlins to do so. They already have everything they could possibly want wrapped in pretty pink ribbon in contracts approved by Mr. Alvarez, Mr. Burgess and nine commissioners.
And even if the Marlins would meet just for show, the mayor hasn’t said if he’ll do what the commission has asked of him as chief administrator, a title he got from voters by pleading that he couldn’t succeed without added powers that he subsequently never used.
The mayor’s office told us last week that Mr. Alvarez was talking with county attorneys on the matter — perhaps to see what he might tell the Marlins or perhaps to see how he could duck the commission’s request to even meet.
Politically, he has everything to lose if he meets. To seek changes would be to admit the contract he pushed through stinks. And to talk and not bring home something big would prove weakness.
The Marlins, for their part, won’t say if they’re willing to talk. If they do, they won’t concede anything meaningful. They’ve got theirs already.
Of course, team owners did just give Mr. Alvarez’s anti-recall campaign $50,000.
But then, owner Jeffrey Loria, a New Yorker, also gave that much to the 2010 campaign of a former pro athlete who failed in the Oregon race for governor, perhaps to make a friend in going for already-approved $115 million state tax funds for a Portland baseball stadium.
The stadium contract ballooned the Marlins franchise value hundreds of millions, and Portland is actively seeking a team too. Mr. Loria already has swapped a franchise in Montreal for one Miami, so why not Portland?
As James Thurber’s literary baseball yarn says, you could look it up.
The whole stadium giveaway is the third strike against the mayor in the recall ballgame.
He successfully pushed through a double-digit tax increase in what he claimed was a no tax increase budget. That came after he quietly handed his inner circle mammoth pay hikes.
So opponents say three strikes and the mayor is out. He will be if voters get their say.
But Mr. Alvarez is now appealing to the umpires in court that the recall game ball was dead because the wrong person at the courthouse signed paperwork.
A next desperation move could be to get the county attorney to say the mayor doesn’t have to ask the Marlins for anything. Will Mr. Alvarez claim that commissioners can’t ask him to try? Or that contracts he engineered can’t be altered even if all sides agree?
Police often lament legal loopholes that allow the guilty to avoid punishment. But former police director Alvarez may not mind them.
If the mayor had spent less time looking for angles in the rulebook and more protecting taxpayers, he could have beaten a recall.
Then we could actually have felt sorry for him.