"If the Padres can get a stadium, why can't we? I've never thought for a minute that we couldn't get something done, honestly. I've always thought we would be able to get one." This statement two months ago from Chargers owner Alex Spanos to a reporter from TodaysSports outraged San Diegans.
Spanos's statement generated denials and "clarifications" from the Spanos camp and San Diego city officials about whether there had been secret negotiations regarding Qualcomm Stadium's fate. Spanos, who told TodaysSports that he was already talking with the city, later claimed to the North County Times that his words had been taken out of context.
His son, Dean Spanos, president of the team, also denied contact with San Diego officials. "There have been no discussions with the city whatsoever," he told the Union-Tribune, "and there is no one down there who could tell you otherwise." A spokesman for Mayor Susan Golding was quoted by the Union-Tribune, "She is adamant that there have been no discussions."
Behind closed doors, at city hall, the story was different.
On March 27, the day before the Spanos story was reported on the Union-Tribune's front page, city officials entered into a contract with Manhattan Beach consultant Daniel J. Barrett of the Barrett Sports Group. Barrett's contract was not negotiated by City Manager Michael Uberuaga, but rather by City Attorney Casey Gwinn. An internal city memo attached to the document notes, "It is recommended that the City Attorney execute the contract to protect sensitive material under the attorney work-product privilege."
The contract is in the form of a letter from Barrett to San Diego Assistant City Attorney Leslie J.Girard. "The City is interested in evaluating stadium lease alternatives in connection with the San Diego Chargers' existing lease at Qualcomm Stadium. In this phase, BSG will develop alternative lease proposals to be presented to the Chargers and assist in negotiations, as necessary."
The contract adds that "BSG will develop a stadium cash-flow model to evaluate various lease alternatives to be presented to the Chargers. The model will be developed to allow for sensitivity testing of key variables under a variety of scenarios. The model will calculate the impact of lease revisions on both the City and the Chargers. BSG will meet with City representatives to present preliminary draft lease alternatives. The lease alternatives will be delivered in presentation-style format. BSG will meet with City representatives to develop a strategic approach to present the lease alternatives to the Chargers."
Barrett's letter goes on to say, "at the direction of the City, BSG will meet with City and Charger representatives to discuss the various lease alternatives. BSG will also be available to participate in negotiations with the Chargers."
Barrett, who charges $250 an hour for his services, declines in his letter to provide a firm total cost estimate for the project. "The fees for professional services of this nature are difficult to estimate due to the nature of the scope of services. Many tasks and sub-tasks described above are such that they may be completed quickly or after an extended period of time due to reliance on the interest, activities and performance of other parties." Although Barrett's letter says that "we would expect that our professional fees would not exceed $20,000," he also adds that "the fees described above do not include fees for major subcontractors."
Thus, protracted dealings with Spanos could run up a big bill for city taxpayers, with no guarantee of anything in return. Taxpayers are left to guess at what is going on. Is Spanos willing to make concessions to the city on the current stadium lease, perhaps giving up the controversial ten-year-long ticket guarantee that last year cost the city at least $6.7 million?
Not likely, says Bruce Henderson, one of the original critics of the Spanos deal, adopted by the city council in May 1995. "The contract was written by the Chargers for the Chargers. The contract doesn't give the city any bargaining power. The only thing the city can do is take Spanos at his word that he has no intention of leaving San Diego and ask him, as a sign of good faith, to eliminate the team- shopping clause. But that's just a fantasy. Alex isn't going to deal. There's simply no question that the contract puts a process in place whereby the Chargers leave San Diego by the end of the 2003 season and go up to Los Angeles or Orange County. The only question is, can the Chargers cut themselves a deal in Los Angeles or Orange County?"
Since Henderson took his stand against the Chargers agreement, some city council members, including Christine Kehoe, chastened by public outcry against the ticket guarantee, have abandoned support for the deal and called for renegotiation.
"It's time to admit that the city council made a major mistake in agreeing to the current, unacceptable lease arrangement with the Chargers," Democrat Kehoe, then running against Brian Bilbray for Congress, told reporters in February 1998. Kehoe's statement drew an attack from Union-Tribune editorial writers, "She apparently believes voters who are unhappy with the Chargers' seat guarantee will remember her splashy press conference this week but are dumb enough to forget her long-standing support -- and multiple votes -- for the stadium expansion. The truth is that, despite Kehoe's pandering, the stadium expansion is actually a very good deal for San Diego." Kehoe lost to Bilbray.
Since then, as losses to the city caused by the ticket guarantee mounted into millions of dollars and the threat of moving the team became more public, the U-T's endorsement of the deal has been muted and critics have multiplied. The lease became a major issue during the run-up to this March's mayoral primary. Almost all candidates, with the exception of Councilwoman Barbara Warden, who received substantial financial backing from Alex Spanos, tried to distance themselves from the deal.
Last December Councilman Byron Wear, then a mayoral candidate, called for an audit of the team's ticket sales. Chargers president Dean Spanos fired back a letter claiming, "We are in full compliance with our obligation to maximize stadium occupancy." Wear reportedly once again broached the idea of renegotiating the contract and got a negative response from the team, according to an account in the U-T.