Charlotte, meet Linda Cropp. More importantly, local leaders and policy makers, meet Mrs. Cropp and remember her the next time you need to summon up some courage to oppose a proposal that "everyone" is for, but still sounds fishy to you.
Linda Cropp is the city council chair for the District of Columbia who said no to Major League Baseball. A close reading of the deal DC Mayor Anthony Williams negotiated with MLB, if you can call rolling over and playing dead negotiating, revealed that a very generous $435 million deal actually left the cash-strapped city on the hook for more like $584 million. Moreover, the deal initially included no penalty for the franchise if it decided to pick up and move again in a few years.
Technically, Cropp did not even kill this lopsided deal, she just led the city council through an amendment process that now requires the franchise to get at least half its backing from the private sector. Imagine that! Private money. Baseball has given the city until the end of the year to come to its senses or the Washington Nationals will be history before they play a game.
And for her common sense fixation on public costs, Cropp has been savaged by some in the media, especially sports reporters who called her "zealous," "power mad," and compared DC to a Third World country. Some even noted the fact that because opinion polls show a majority of District residents oppose public funding for a stadium, this is proof that Cropp is posturing for the mayor's race in 2006. Imagine that, doing the public's will against entrenched interests seeking a handout is political gamesmanship.
This is good stuff. It is a test case on the unpleasant fallout from sidetracking a municipal deal "everyone" favors and is something Charlotte's leaders need to understand and study. Deal-makers, insiders, consultants, and sometimes even professional government staff count on elected officials being reluctant to "look bad" or "sound dumb" by continuing to ask basic questions about government policy. But, in truth, nothing is worse than doing the wrong thing out of timidity.
Incredibly, some baseball boosters have even found a racial component at play in Cropp's stance because Cropp is an African-American. They posit that as the baseball franchise would've primarily attracted white suburban fans, of course Cropp opposes it. This is another lesson leaders in Mecklenburg should take to heart: Any sufficiently large decision can, and probably will, be cast by someone in absurd racial terms.
Charlotte faces many huge questions in the coming year. Education, subsuming pupil and teacher assignments and a possible tax hike, is one major issue. Roads and transportation, including a light rail mass transit plan that may be on its way to busting its $400 million budget is another. Development issues involving where and what kind, not to mention development with or without public subsidies are ever present. An arts project wish list that has ballooned to $130 million and may require $8 million a year in new taxes to fund. The list goes on and on.
On all of these issues, efforts will be made to present policy makers in local government with done deals. Some of these deals might be good ones, or at least the best possible. But some deals may be very bad ideas indeed. And as Linda Cropp demonstrated, it is never too late to say no to a bad idea.