Turf War

Well, shucks, sportsfans. And all this time we thought ticket sales were going to sound the NFL death knell in Jacksonville. Instead, it’s been struck — if only briefly — by the most ardent fan of sports, and downtown, and downtown sports to ever occupy the Fourth Floor of City Hall.

Mayor Brown last week narrowly averted a train wreck just a year into his term in office, the kind of PR crisis that most elected officials work ferociously to avoid, much less instigate. The incident arose when the Jaguars sent a letter on Thursday, May 24 to the city declaring they’d selected a company to manage the team’s facilities at EverBank Field: SMG, the same company that has managed them for the past 20 years.

This, by itself, wasn’t a surprise. SMG cut a check for $300,000 to local Jaguars partners in 1991 to secure the management contract, and has continued to pay 10 percent of its revenues to those same folks for the past two decades in order to keep the contract. (Click here to see related documents) What’s more, SMG’s lawyer, über lobbyist Paul Harden, also represents the Jaguars, an arrangement incestuous enough to raise eyebrows in Appalachia.

But the Jaguars’ May 24 letter made manifest a difficult truth: That despite the ritual Request For Proposal the city issued in March, and despite the motions officials had gone through to vet and rank the bidders, the process was a sham. There were two companies bidding — SMG and Global Spectrum — but the Jags’ first right of refusal ensured that their choice would win, regardless of who was the low bidder or most qualified.

That the Jags chose SMG — the client of their lobbyist — is no shock. But General Counsel Cindy Laquidara claimed the May 24 letter “surprised” her, and quickly responded with her own, notifying the Jaguars that they were officially in default of the lease and putting them on 45 days notice of lease termination.

Ballsy? Sure. Ill-considered? Well, duh. Within hours, Jags owner Shahid Khan responded with a blistering letter, pointing out his $800 million investment in the team, his efforts to financially support city initiatives (including, he pointedly noted, one of the mayor’s pet projects) and concluding with a threat of his own. “Please advise us of the method of your implementation of the default and termination, if that is your intention,” he wrote. “We are on the cusp of training camp to begin the NFL season and will need to act quickly.”

Translation: California, here we come.

The city’s retraction of the letter and the swift apology of the General Counsel followed, faster than local news sites could be updated. And Brown insisted the city and Khan were prepared to move on, rather than dwell on the matter.

But the dustup revealed a couple things that should not be forgotten. One, the lease agreement between the city and the Jaguars was changed substantially during the RFP process, without the oversight of City Council, or (apparently) the mayor or city lawyers. Witness the evolution of the language for selecting a new facility manger. According to the 1993 lease, The city and TDJ shall mutually select … the facility management company … that will manage the operation of the stadium and parking areas.

The language of the March RFP echoed the lease: The selection of a Manager for EverBank Field will be subject to the joint selection with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ltd., pursuant to [the lease] agreement dated September, 1993.

Then on May 9, in the 13th addendum to the RPF, a completely new deal was struck. First, the 28-word blurb grew to 236 words, and included this radical turn of phrase: If the City and JJL do not agree at any stage during this RFP process (including without limitation committee ranking and Mayor selection, and contract negotiations), then this RFP shall be terminated and no contract shall be awarded.

The language is no small thing, and not just because the city and the Jaguars already, clearly, did not agree during this RFP process, which arguably voids the deal. But it is important, too, because Addendum 13 completely redefines their role in the process, from collaborator to decider-in-chief — a change of which both Laquidara and Mayor Brown claim they were unaware.

The scuffle also prompted a closer look at the original lease, which — it’s worth noting — was a 49-page document. The RFP, by comparison, is 56 pages, and Addendum 13 is, by itself, 86 pages. The complexity of the effort to find someone to sell tickets and wipe up beer at EverBank Field is exponentially more complex than the original lease with the Jags.

Finally, the dispute demonstrated that the city’s procurement process is a legal minefield, one that allows the language of the city’s most significant (and scrutinized) contracts to be changed, behind closed doors, and apparently without the knowledge or consent of top city administrators.

In the wake of last week’s disaster, some people are calling for Laquidara’s head, saying she acted rashly, and should never have sent the letter. If she’d sent it from her own City Hall silo without the knowledge or input of the mayor, then I’d line up with the naysayers. But that’s not how it went down. Laquidara is a smart lawyer and a loyal employee, and while she can rightly be faulted for sometimes representing fools and fabulists, she’s not stupid. She would not unilaterally imperil the city’s NFL dreams, or give the Jacksonville Jaguars the 45-day heave-ho, without running a draft of that letter by the folks on the Fourth Floor. Brown admitted as much last week, telling the Times-Union that he’d read the letter before it was sent, though he didn’t anticipate Khan’s response.

That, Mr. Mayor, is the only thing in this entire episode that is absolutely transparent.

Anne Schind

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