PITCHING A SHUTOUTTHE PUBLIC WAS CUT OUT OF THE BASEBALL-STADIUM DEBATE BEFORE IT EVEN BEGAN

Baseball lovers and tax haters waited all last week for word on the proposed baseball stadium they will be asked to pay for.

Two months after Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo and an investor group announced plans to pursue an expansion franchise, a breakthrough in negotiations was expected any day, as soon as Maricopa County Supervisor Jim Bruner, the swing vote, came to terms with Colangelo.

But if the public expected to finally be told any details of the proposed $300 million-plus stadium development, it was sorely disappointed when an agreement was finally announced last Friday afternoon.

Bruner and Colangelo did not attend the announcement. Lawyers who had negotiated for the county and Colangelo's group outlined the deal in the broadest possible terms--$240 million in county sales tax money, and a sliding rent structure--and then refused to answer questions about details of the transaction.

After two months of intense negotiations on one of the largest public-works projects in recent county history, the county's spin doctors passed out one sheet of paper purporting to explain the proposed deal.

Nothing further would be released, they said, until the proposal is formally presented to the county Board of Supervisors at a meeting tonight.

Voters, who have swamped county offices and radio talk shows with telephone calls trying to find out what sort of deal was being made in their name, were still left waiting for information.

But then, it has been that way ever since the stadium proposal surfaced last November.

From Colangelo's initial press conference in front of America West Arena last year to the strangely secretive announcement by negotiators on Friday, the public has been deliberately shut out of the process.

Only tonight, when the supervisors are scheduled to meet and formally receive the proposal, will voters get to learn the inner workings of the deal for the first time. And tonight, the supervisors are also expected to approve the deal, making any attempt at public input into the deal a charade.

Supervisors Ed King and Mary Rose Wilcox have already announced they will support new sales taxes to build the stadium. Supervisor Tom Rawles has said he will not; Supervisor Betsey Bayless has withdrawn from the discussion because of a conflict of interest.

Until last week, that left Bruner--a longtime baseball booster who has his eye on a congressional race this year--to decide if the citizens of Maricopa County will be putting up almost a quarter-billion dollars for a new baseball park.

Now Bruner is on board, capping a weeklong flurry of talks.
Throughout the critical week, telephone lines coursed with thousands of calls from voters who wanted to have their say about paying a new quarter-cent sales tax, and from citizens groups clamoring for details of the secret plan.

But the public's questions went unanswered, its comments largely unheard.
The doors to the negotiations were deliberately closed. By the time the stadium arrangement is laid out for the public tonight, it will be a done deal.

The mammoth stadium project--and one of the county's largest tax increases, levied by a board that has slashed services in the face of recent budget problems--will probably come to pass without any messy interference from the public.

There have been no hearings. No public vote on the tax levy. In fact--except for the single sheet handed out at Friday's press conference--barely a scrap of paper providing even the most general outlines of the deal between the county and Colangelo's group has been made public while the negotiations were taking place.

Instead, voters have been left to ferret out from press conferences, news leaks and sound bites what actions were being taken in their name, and what the deal might cost their pocketbooks.

The sidelining of public opinion was no accident.
@rule:
@body:Voters were cut out of the loop on the question of a baseball-stadium tax four years ago. The entire process took five minutes and 15 seconds.

It happened on June 14, 1990, long before Jerry Colangelo entered the baseball scene. A totally innocuous bill--a technical correction in the state groundwater code--was up for consideration by the Arizona House of Representatives.

Representative Chris Herstam, about to wrap up eight years in the legislature, rose to offer an amendment to Senate Bill 1344. The amendment was what is known in legislative jargon as a "striker." Strikers, past and current legislators agree, are the stealth bombers of the legislative process. To launch this type of surreptitious attack on the law, a legislator proposes an amendment "striking" all the wording from a pending bill, and then replaces the original language with a completely new, unrelated law.

The rules governing strikers have been tightened since 1990, but at the time, Herstam was able to completely transform a hypertechnical correction in the groundwater code (which had already passed the Senate) and substitute new verbiage that allowed the Board of Supervisors of Maricopa County--and only Maricopa County--to create a county stadium district with the power to levy a quarter-cent sales tax.

The timing of Herstam's legislative foray into major league baseball was also not accidental. The year before, Phoenix voters had gone to the polls and resoundingly rejected new taxes to pay for a sports stadium.

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