Dunedin city leaders are too cozy with Blue Jays
© St. Petersburg Times,
From now on when the Toronto Blue Jays say they want something and Dunedin -- the baseball team's spring training host -- jumps to provide it, Dunedin residents will be within their rights to wonder, "Was that decision bought?"
The Dunedin city commissioners, city manager and city attorney have left themselves wide open to such speculation after accepting gifts of meals, lodging, theater tickets, baseball tickets and even jewelry from the Blue Jays and the city of Toronto for years. Largo Times staff writer Leon Tucker reported Sunday that in the past 10 years, the gifts have totaled more than $34,000.
Since 1977, when the Blue Jays started conducting spring training in Dunedin, the city's officials have made many trips to Canada. They fly to Toronto, stay in nice hotels in that cosmopolitan city, attend games in the major league stadium, and meet and socialize with team and city officials. On recent trips, they also have enjoyed live theater performances. Although some travel and entertainment costs are borne by the city or individual commissioners, many are paid for by the city of Toronto or the Blue Jays.
This isn't the first time that the cost of junkets to Toronto has gotten Dunedin officials in hot water. In 1988 the city was forced to consider new limits on spending of taxpayer money for travel after a former commissioner blew his city travel budget by taking numerous trips and running up bills for lavish dinners and entertainment expenses.
In 1993, city commissioners again had to defend the trips after flying to Toronto for several baseball games even though Dunedin was suffering a budget shortfall.
The situation seems to have gotten worse instead of better. Trips, meals and socializing are more expensive now, driving up the value of the gifts. Trips that used to be limited to two to four days now may last six or seven. And entertainment, which used to consist primarily of attending the season opener of the Blue Jays, now may include other activities.
City officials defend their actions, saying the junkets are "goodwill trips" that help maintain good relations between Dunedin and Toronto and its baseball team. Dunedin officials have reported the value of the gifts they received from Toronto and the Blue Jays, as required under state law. Commissioner John Doglione points out that Toronto has picked up most of the expenses and that the Blue Jays' gift-giving typically is limited to tickets to baseball games or spring training boxes in the city's own stadium.
The team also gave two gold watches to City Manager John Lawrence in 1992 and 1993, which he quickly donated to the city museum last week when the Times began asking questions about them.
Each time this behavior by the city has raised eyebrows, Dunedin taxpayers have criticized their elected officials. But the officials just don't seem to get it.
Dunedin's relationship with the Toronto Blue Jays is a business relationship; therefore, it is no more appropriate for city officials to accept gifts from the Blue Jays than it would be for them to take gifts from, say, the city's cable television provider or a bidder seeking a city job. It just doesn't look good.
While it is true that Dunedin has no formal business ties with the city of Toronto, the relationship that has grown between the two cities through the years is so tangled up with professional baseball that it is impossible to separate.
And when that relationship is fed by favors and gifts year after year, Dunedin officials are bound to be influenced. Who wouldn't be?
Is Dunedin today bending over backward to get an extra $2-million to give the Blue Jays the amenities the team has demanded in its new $12-million spring training facility because doing so is a good business decision for the city? Or is it because the relationship between the city and the Jays has become so cozy that Dunedin officials are uncomfortable saying no?
Lawrence and City Attorney John Hubbard were negotiators of the city's new spring training contract with the Blue Jays. Both men have accepted gifts from the Blue Jays. Was the contract as tough on the Blue Jays as it could have been?
The answers to those questions are not clear because the situations now are colored by the potential influence of money.
Clearwater and Tampa, both cities that host spring training teams, understand the problem and have policies against city officials taking gifts from the teams. There are still "goodwill trips" between the cities, but Clearwater and Tampa pay their own way.
Dunedin should do the same, starting today.
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