In an interview published in the Reader on December 16, 1999, former San Diego city councilman Bruce Henderson put his finger on the trigger clause, a loophole in the city's 1995 contract with the Chargers. The trigger clause would allow the team, should they wish, to move the franchise to Los Angeles. Everyone, including then-mayor Susan Golding, denied that such a loophole existed.
Declared Henderson in the 1999 interview, "I believe this is the only NFL franchise that can, without any fear of breaching its contract, start asking people to make offers to them to move their team."
Henderson went on to say, "So obviously the logical thing, right now, as of January 1, is for [Chargers owner] Alex Spanos to have maneuvered himself so that he can trigger the salary cap. Under Section 31 of the agreement, if salaries and benefits paid to Chargers team members exceed 75 percent of certain NFL revenues, calculated using a per-team average, then Spanos can shop the team to other cities such as L.A. Now, I don't know what the actual numbers are for 1999, but the point is that the experts say that it's fairly easy to exceed the salary cap, particularly if you've got a situation like the Chargers have right now, where they entered into a contract with a very expensive quarterback, [Ryan Leaf]."
Henderson forecast in 1999, "Then the Chargers can go out, shop the team, and negotiate. Say they, the Chargers, start in January of 2000 quietly negotiating up in Los Angeles. I say quietly, because as far as I can tell under the contract, there seems to be no requirement that they notify anyone that they are engaged in negotiations. Then, say they come back to the city and give them notice that the salary cap has been exceeded and they would like to renegotiate the contract.
"Well, then the City and Chargers negotiate for the first of two periods lasting 90 days. At the same time, the Chargers can continue negotiations in L.A. If the Chargers don't reach a new agreement with the City acceptable to the Chargers, then the Chargers have 18 months to finalize the L.A. negotiations. At that point, when they've finalized the deal in Los Angeles, they have to present to San Diego this offer, say, from Los Angeles, and San Diego has a period of 90 days to match it."
Matt Potter (in the 1999 interview): When you say "match it," what's that mean?
BH: "Well, presumably, say the Chargers find a coalition of people in the city of Los Angeles who agree to pay the NFL $500 million to move the team to Los Angeles and provide the Chargers with a stadium seating 100,000. The Chargers bring this offer back to San Diego and say that if you -- that is, San Diego -- match it, we'll keep the team here in San Diego.
"And you have 90 days to raise the money -- make the decision and raise the money. Well, of course, the likelihood of the City of San Diego being able to raise $500 million is unlikely, let alone agreeing to construct a new stadium seating 100,000. And that would be pretty much a minimum offer to the NFL and the Chargers. After all, when the expansion team went to Houston, the NFL was paid, I think, $700 million."
Today, a little more than three years later, Henderson, 59, who represented the sixth council district, is now a veteran of Mayor Dick Murphy's Chargers task force. He is still predicting certain doom for the city's attempts to keep the team, unless it takes strong legal measures to enforce its original contract. In an interview last week, he provided a post mortem of the task force's confused work, critiqued some of his fellow task-force members, and offered a set of guidelines that, he insists, must be followed if there is any chance to stave off the team's move to Los Angeles.
"I got on the task force, and then the first thing that happens to me is that the chairman, Mr. Watson -- who had the advantage of representing, as an attorney, Sea World and the Zoo -- he comes to me and he says, 'Bruce, I want you to be the chair of the contracts committee,' which was the committee that was set up to handle all the legal issues regarding the Chargers agreement. And so I say, well, fine, I'd be happy to do that.
"So we have a meeting, an organizational meeting, with the city attorney's office about the contracts committee, and Watson walks in and sits down and says, well, the first thing he announces is that he is going to be chairman of the contracts committee! And I didn't say anything. I didn't want to get into a confrontation with him about it."
Henderson says he saw the hand of City Attorney Casey Gwynn.
"I think that there were a couple of things. One was that they were afraid that I would try again to focus on the city attorney's role and its fundamental failure to protect the city against these catastrophic clauses in the contract that they had been fully warned about in 1996.
"So afterwards I said something to [Watson] and he said, 'Well, that was just a hullabaloo when I privately announced that you were going to be chair.' But he wouldn't tell me who put the pressure on.
"But, in any event, a week goes by, and suddenly I find out that Watson isn't going to be the chair but the person who is going to be chair is [Len Simon], another attorney on the task force [who works for Milberg, Weiss]. And so, well, I go, 'Fine.'
"But then we start holding our contracts-committee meetings, and I find that, as chair, Simon first makes it very clear that under no circumstances will we spend any time reviewing what happened in 1995 or 1997 to figure out what went wrong.