Based on recent polling, it looked as if Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan would be an instant frontrunner should she decide to run for mayor of Oakland this year. And now that she’s officially entered the race, she may very well be one of the top tier candidates. But if last week is any indication, Kaplan’s path to the mayor’s office could turn out to be rocky, considering the missteps she made involving a flawed lease deal for the A’s at the Coliseum and her past involvement with a now-defunct political campaign that appears to have violated local and state election laws.
Of the two problems, the proposed lease extension for the A’s could prove to be more costly for East Bay residents. Under the deal, which Kaplan helped broker, Alameda County and the City of Oakland would forgive the $5 million that the A’s owe the Coliseum in back rent. The A’s would then take that money and use it to help finance a new scoreboard, which is expected to cost at least $10 million. In other words, the deal effectively calls for city and county taxpayers to spend $5 million on a scoreboard at the Coliseum.
Now, it’s true that the current scoreboard is out of date and in general disrepair. But it’s questionable as to whether it makes sense for a public entity to spend another $5 million to upgrade a facility that Oakland’s sports teams want to abandon. After all, the Raiders have made it clear that they’ll try to move to another city unless they get a new stadium, while the A’s have been trying desperately to leave town for the past decade.
Moreover, it’s a safe bet that city and county residents would prefer that the $5 million be spent on vital public services rather than on a scoreboard that would benefit extraordinarily wealthy owners of sports franchises. There’s also the principle of allowing the A’s to get away with not paying their rent for the past few years. The $5 million that the A’s owe is actually parking tax revenues that the team collects from its fans and then deducts from its rent payments to the Coliseum. In other words, the A’s have been pocketing cash from their fans without telling them — a move that is not only ethically questionable, but that also appears to violate the team’s lease agreement. The dispute is scheduled to go in front of an arbitrator later this year, but it would be surprising if the A’s prevail.
In an interview, Kaplan declined to discuss the specifics of the proposed deal, but said it allows the Coliseum Authority — the joint city and county board on which she also serves — to fulfill a “contractual obligation” that it already has. (Kaplan also said that she would not agree to any lease deal with the A’s that allows them to keep deducting parking tax revenues from their rent payments.)
Kaplan declined to specify the obligation she mentioned, but Coliseum Executive Director Deena McClain said the authority has a contractual obligation to maintain the old scoreboard and fix it when it breaks down.
Although it’s possible that the old scoreboard could badly malfunction at any time, and that the repair costs could total $5 million, it’s not entirely clear that such a scenario will happen. As a result, agreeing to spend $5 million now on a new scoreboard appears to be a questionable use of public funds, especially considering that the Raiders and A’s may both be leaving the Coliseum in five to seven years.
So why do A’s owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher want to spend at least $5 million of their own money on a new scoreboard that they may only use for a half-decade? It’s all about profit. Under the A’s’ lease deal, the team gets to keep all advertising revenue at the Coliseum, and those revenues will soar with a new scoreboard, allowing Wolff and Fisher to quickly recoup their investment.
Another troubling aspect of the proposed lease deal is that it allows the A’s to leave Oakland at any time with just one year’s notice. But that deal point is not Kaplan’s doing; it’s a problem created by the Raiders. The Raiders and the current developers of Coliseum City, for some unexplained reason, want to build the new football stadium in the same spot as the Coliseum. Their plan, as a result, would force both the Raiders and the A’s to leave Oakland for three years or so while new facilities are built for both teams. The Raiders would play in Santa Clara at the 49ers’ new stadium, while the A’s would likely play at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The deal also would require the city and county to immediately pay off the remaining bond debt owed on the old Coliseum.
That’s an extraordinarily bad idea, and the city and county should not agree to it. There’s no reason why the Raiders can’t build a new stadium on the existing parking lot next door so that they and the A’s can keep playing at the Coliseum during construction.
As for Kaplan’s other misstep — the shady political campaign — it reveals poor decision-making on her part, and raises concerns about her ethics. As reported by the Oakland Tribune on Sunday, Kaplan has decided to disband a ballot measure committee that she established four years ago after it came to light that the committee had paid a staffer who worked solely on her 2010 mayoral campaign. Under local and state election laws, it’s illegal for a candidate to use ballot measure funds to help his or her own political campaign.
Kaplan, who denies doing anything wrong, was right to kill the ballot measure committee. And she would be smart to back away from the $5 million scoreboard deal as well.