SANTA BARBARA, CA — Judging from the initial coverage the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times gave to it, an agreement on the outline of negotiations for a new long-term lease of Angel Stadium might have been just another routine item on an Anaheim City Council meeting agenda.
Register reporter Art Marroquin’s story on a framework for lease negotiations—which the council approved early in September on a 4-1 vote—was dutiful, bland, and short. His piece focused on the city’s agreement to give Arte Moreno, owner of the Angels professional baseball franchise, an extension of three years before he must decide whether to opt out of the current lease and move the team. A city consultant said the Angels would be “impulsive and difficult to negotiate with” if the extension weren’t granted, Marroquin wrote.
The Times’ Bill Shaikin offered up an even more pro forma account, noting that the same consultant told the City Council that Moreno “has emphasized he has the means to move the team elsewhere” if negotiations aren’t fruitful. Shaikin reported that Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait opposed the two memorandums of understanding approved by the council but did not quote or paraphrase him as to why.
The Times and Register articles mentioned, but otherwise made very little of a rather startling starting point for stadium negotiations: The city would lease 155 acres surrounding the stadium to Moreno and his companies for 66 years—at $1 per year. In exchange, Moreno would update the stadium, or maybe build a new one, and develop the parking lots around it in some way. Neither story even raised the question of the potentially enormous economic value of the long-term use of the real estate in question. (Nearly two months later, the Register did explore this question in a substantial piece—more on that to come).
Four days after the negotiating agreement was approved, the Times, in a journalistically unusual move, published an opinion column by Shaikin, who covers professional baseball on and off the field for the paper. Shaikin’s column argued in favor of the $1-per-year, 66-year lease. Without providing much in the way of financial information to support his position, he concluded that, because the land surrounding the stadium had not been developed in recent decades, “this is as good as it gets for Anaheim.”
Tait—a lawyer with an MBA—has a different view, to say the least. In an interview early in November, he called the memorandums of understanding “shocking” and “outrageous.” “I don’t know of a larger municipal giveaway,” he said, suggesting that the property in question has a conservative value of hundreds of millions of dollars. And he said that when he describes the negotiating agreements to constituents, “they are saying, `Why don’t more people know about this?’”
The situation around the Angel Stadium lease is vague, complicated, and in flux. What the city and the Angels agreed to early in September is not a final deal; in general, it is an agreement to negotiate in “good faith,” based on the outlines of the memorandums of agreement approved by the City Council. Those negotiating memorandums were placed on the City Council meeting agenda on the Friday before a long Labor Day weekend and voted on the following Tuesday. There was little time for public debate before the council approved them.
The major newspapers that might be expected to stimulate such a debate did little of the sort in the month after that approval.
It was the Voice of OC, a small nonprofit investigative news organization, that presented the first genuinely enterprising coverage of the Angel Stadium lease. The Voice asked the central—and obvious—question raised by the lease negotiating framework in a Sept. 19 article headlined, “What is the Actual Value of the Angel Stadium Deal?” The story, written by Adam Elmahrek, acknowledged the difficulty of placing a value on the stadium and the land surrounding it, given the uncertainty about details of any deal, including what, if any, taxes might be rebated to a developer over the years. But at least the piece began to put parameters on the size of benefit being offered to the owner of the Angels, citing two city studies estimating the value of the land at somewhere between $30 million and $380 million.
Norberto Santana Jr., editor in chief of the Voice and a former investigative reporter for the Register, said the Times has been largely absent in terms of covering Orange County public affairs recently. But he was surprised by the Register’s less than comprehensive coverage in the weeks after the agreement because the Angel Stadium negotiations “are the strangest I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stadium negotiation so one-sided or so quick,” he said.