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Sox seeking summit with top politicians

By Meg Vaillancourt and Steve Wilmsen, Globe Staff, 7/11/2000

acing to get a new ballpark bill passed before state lawmakers adjourn in three weeks, Red Sox chief John Harrington is pressing for a summit with Governor Paul Cellucci, Senate President Thomas Birmingham, House Speaker Thomas Finneran, and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, possibly as soon as today. In preparation for the meeting, top aides to the four political leaders met three times yesterday to review possible financing schemes for the team's $627 million project, twice among themselves and once with Red Sox officials.

Only the top aides to Cellucci, Birmingham, Finneran, and Menino attended the first meeting, held in the speaker's office. Several hours later, Red Sox vice president James Healey and the team's two key consultants, John Sasso and Robert Walsh, attended the second meeting, which was followed by yet another meeting of just the four top aides.

But despite the hours of talking, no agreements were reached, sources familiar with the talks said late last night. And although Harrington asked to meet with the four principals as soon as possible, aides cautioned that Menino and Cellucci are slated to participate in Sail Boston 2000 activities today.

Hoping for a last minute breakthrough, Harrington has cleared his schedule, cancelling his prior plans to attend the All Star Game and accompanying festitives in Atlanta over the next few days.

Nonetheless, political leaders and the Red Sox concede that the chances of a new ballpark bill getting passed this year grow dimmer each day. Asked whether there was sufficient time to consider the controversial proposal before state lawmakers adjourn, Finneran declared that House members, now locked in a budget battle with the Senate, have more important issues to address first.

"I would suggest that getting the state budget passed has a higher priority," Finneran said. "To the extent that time and energy are going to be expended this week, it should be on resolving that."

Finneran, however, refused to call the Sox ballpark bill dead for the year. He noted, for example, that there should be no confusion about where the House stands since members have consistantly said they would support only infrastructure aid for the project.

But although he was supportive of Menino, Finneran declined to publicly detail which additional fees or surcharges he would back to help the city recoup its $120 million investment in acquiring the ballpark site -- a key sticking point in the current talks. Instead he said the burden for figuring how to pay back the city lies with the team.

"This proposal begins and ends with the Red Sox," Finneran said. "There should be a high burden of persuasion imposed on them, rather than to expect responsible public officials to scramble around to come up with some solution. It's the Red Sox's problem."

Wary of offending public leaders, the Red Sox last night declined to comment on the talks with the city and state. But while state leaders are expected to focus on the budget battle over the next few days, some political observers argue there may be a very slight window of opportunity for the Red Sox near the very end of the session.

By law, the governor must have at least 10 days to consider the budget. Since lawmakers are also expected to allow themselves a few days beyond that to take up any gubernatorial vetos, it's possible the Legislature could take up a ballpark bill in late July after the budget is passed.

However, since there must first be public hearings on the ballpark plan, many political players are pessimistic.

"It's not dead, but it's certainly on life support," said one source familiar with the ballpark negotiations. "It might just have to go into a coma and come back to life in another form next January when the Legislature reconvenes."

Meanwhile, both Menino and Finneran said they felt vindicated by a new Globe poll showing Bostonians are opposed to public financing for a new Fenway Park.

"It says this administration hasn't lost touch with what constituents want," said Menino, who was given a sky-high 77 percent approval rating in the poll.

"It supports what we've been saying for four years now," Finneran said. "There is a only a limited role for the public [in terms of investment.]"

As the Globe reported yesterday, nearly 70 percent of the 400 people polled last week said they had a favorable opinion of the Red Sox, but only 34 percent approved of the team's financing plan.

The poll explained that under the Red Sox proposal, the team would pay for the $350 million ballpark and the city and state would invest up to $275 million in infrastructure and site acquisition and clean up. It also noted that team's plan calls for the city's investment to be repaid through fees, surcharges and taxes associated with the project.

However, the Red Sox yesterday criticized the phrasing of some questions included in the poll, arguing they were confusing and potentially misleading. In particular, the team objected to the use of the term "fair" as a negative response in one set of questions.

"Using the term `fair,' especially when you are referring to taxes and fees, in not acceptable because it's an ambiguous word," said Kathryn St. John, a spokeswoman for the team. "It can mean you think it's appropriate or reasonable rather than something negative."

But while respondents opposed the Red Sox's financing proposal, they were even more strongly opposed to an alternative plan, which called for the city to build and own the new Fenway Park and lease it back to the Red Sox. Although publicly owned ballparks are common elsewhere in the country, some 54 percent of Bostonians polled ruled out the idea.

This story ran on page E01 of the Boston Globe on 7/11/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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