Anaheim Mayor Wants to Dump Stadium Lease Negotiator

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait is proposing that prominent local trial attorney Wylie Aitken be the city’s outside negotiator as officials gear up to restart talks with the Angels baseball team over a new stadium lease.

Under Tait’s proposal, which he outlined during Tuesday's City Council meeting, Aitken would replace Charles Black, who led a previous round of negotiations that ended in controversy and gridlock.

The mayor described Aitken, who is also Voice of OC’s board chairman, as a “better option” than Black and an Anaheim resident who has the interests of the city at heart.

Aitken, one of Orange County’s most influential Democrats and an Angels Baseball season ticket holder, said Wednesday that he brings to the negotiations his experience brokering high-level deals in legal cases and a talent for bringing people together.

“I care about the city. I care about the Angels. I’m flattered that my name is being considered. I’m willing to take a serious look at it,” Aitken said.

City Manager Paul Emery and City Attorney Michael Houston in recent weeks hired Black, a former president of the San Diego Padres who later went on to lead development of the land surrounding PETCO Park, in an effort to rekindle stadium lease negotiations.

Talks broke down last year after months of public backlash to a deal framework that critics said amounted to a huge giveaway to Angels owner Arte Moreno.

Under the prior terms, which supporters argued were only preliminary, an investment group involving Moreno would lease 155 acres of publicly-owned land around the stadium at $1 annually for 66 years. The proposed agreement also allowed Moreno to drop “Anaheim” from the official Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim team name.

The argument for the land deal was that Moreno could use revenue from developing the property to finance an estimated $150 million in renovations for the aging stadium.

Tait led the chorus of criticism that was credited with scuttling the deal last year. The mayor says he wants an agreement that is fair to the taxpayers and has proposed a compromise whereby Moreno and the city split revenue from any potential development.

During the previous round of negotiations, Tait and Black publicly clashed over the fine points of the proposed agreement, and Black, some critics said, argued too much from the Angels’ side of the bargaining table.

“Most in attendance in the council chambers and many news reporters thought that Black was the attorney representing Arte Moreno and the Angels, not Anaheim,” Wally Courtney, a real estate agent and vocal critic of the previous deal framework, wrote in a blast email. “If I went on TV to argue with my boss… I would be fired before the first commercial break!”

As negotiations began to stall, Black, who could not be reached for comment for this article, left the city’s negotiating team.

Yet, despite criticism of his abrasive behavior, Emery and Houston entered into a new contract with Black. It is because of this and other reasons that Tait's proposal isn't a sure thing.

First, there’s a vetting process that Aitken would have to go through to check for conflicts of interest related to his law practice. Then there is the fact that Houston worked under Black at the real estate department of a law firm several years ago.

In a March 10 memo to the council, Emery and Houston argued that Black is invaluable because he has strong relationships with the upper ranks of the team’s management.

“Mr. Black’s unique professional and legal reputation and skill set provides us the crucial ability to directly engage with the ultimate decision makers and do so in a credible manner,” the memo reads.

Tait disagrees. He says hiring back the consultant who helped negotiate the last time is a step in the wrong direction.

“Why would you hire the person who negotiated the last deal, that everyone now agrees was a bad deal?” Tait said. “If we want a fresh start, why would we do this?”

It's unclear whether Tait has the votes he needs on the council to get his proposal passed. However, his choice of Aitken was shrewd given that the swing vote could very well be Democrat Jordan Brandman.

A logical scenario would have Tait and his council ally James Vanderbilt voting for Aitken, while councilwomen Kris Murray and Lucille Kring side with Black.

This would leave Brandman in the position of having to choose between Anaheim's business establishment and Aitken, one of the local Democratic Party's most powerful players.

Aitken won’t comment on what he thought about the previous deal, or what he thinks a good deal might look like. Just like in a lawsuit, he said, “you don’t negotiate in the press.”

He added that he has a “cordial” relationship with Moreno and believes he could get a fair deal for both sides accomplished.

“I do think I have that kind of skill, hopefully with a little charm and a little sense of humor, and a whole lot of preparation,” Aitken said.

But he was careful to not be critical of Black. “To me its not about Charles Black, it’s about the city and whether Wylie Aitken can help or not,” he said.

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