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Citizen Servatius

What Price For Jewels?

Tara Servatius

pull: City staff answer these questions from council members as if they're talking to a child who's a bit slow on the uptake. And the answers often are just assurances that everything will eventually turn out OK.

I almost feel sorry for City Manager Pam Syfert. It's like the uptown crowd tied her hands behind her back, marched her down the plank and pushed her off with the full expectation that the woman could swim to shore, pulling the city council and entire arena showboat behind her with a rope clenched between her teeth. If she doesn't make it to shore, she's dead. If she makes it to shore and council members refuse to disembark, it'll be her fault. It's quite clear that those leading the battle to keep the Hornets basketball team here have given Syfert the responsibility for whipping the council into shape.

She knows it and the council knows it. That's why, in the midst of this debacle over the arena, Syfert has achieved a rare feat for a city manager. She has eclipsed the council, becoming, at least for the time being, more powerful than the elected officials she works for.

It's not Syfert herself that many of them kowtow to, but the powers behind her, the ones marching her down the plank. It's those same powers behind Syfert that makes her gutsy enough -- or desperate enough -- to stare down council members who ask logical questions about holes in the arena deal and obfuscate rather than answer.

I'll ask again, council member Don Lochman said to Syfert a few weeks ago. Lochman just wanted to know, according to the legal terms of an agreement being negotiated between the city and the team, what would happen if the city failed to meet the arena construction deadline. Could the Hornets walk out of town, leaving a nearly completed arena empty?

After a few minutes of meaningless blathering by Syfert, Lochman turned to City Attorney Mac McCarley.

Maybe the city attorney will answer my question, Lochman roared.

McCarley finally did. Lochman was right. That part hadn't been, shall we say, clarified.

In the Monopoly game of politics, access to information is one of the most valuable quantities a player can own. Those who have it play in the power circles, those who don't grope around in the dark. With the exception of arena champion Lynn Wheeler and those she chooses to share information with, the city council is generally the last to know what is being negotiated in its name.

And I don't just mean last. I mean dead last. On most other issues, particularly controversial ones, council members receive information the Friday before the Monday meeting. It's discussed at a lunch meeting with the city manager. Lately though, the council is hit with new and often disturbing information they are expected not to question live on camera on Government Channel 16. Tune it sometime. It's better than a soap opera.

Take Thursday's council meeting, for instance. It was like Candid Camera. Surprise! For months, Mayor Pat McCrory and the council have been adamant that any lease deal between the city and the team be a 25-year-deal written in stone. That makes sense because that's how long it will take the city to pay off the lease. But on camera Thursday night, the council learned that city negotiators had given away nine years of the lease, locking the team into just 16 years at a new facility. If the team is no longer financially viable at that point, they can leave. The definition of the term viable is still up in the air.

The whole thing gave council members who support the arena deal the cover they needed to take to the airwaves and bash the team, and by extention the staff negotiators who set it up, banging their fists and yelling for someone to be consistent, for someone to take responsibility.

Along the way, the brave have asked logical questions, like if we aren't exactly certain how much money the rental car tax will bring in, and we aren't certain if the state legislature, which must approve the tax, will shave off some of the tax revenue by exempting some car renters, than how can we know if we're setting aside enough money in the budget to cover cost overruns?

City staff answer these questions from council members as if they're talking to a child who's a bit slow on the uptake. And the answers the staff and Syfert give them often aren't answers at all, but carefully worded assurances that everything will eventually turn out OK.

I don't completely blame Syfert or the city staff for this. The Hornets now have the absolute upper hand -- or should I say iron fist -- in arena negotiations. They've long since figured out that there is no penalty for missing the deadlines council continues to impose. Consequently, the team hasn't met one in recent memory.

But then, city leaders reason, why forfeit an NBA team to another potential world-class city just because Hornets leaders missed another deadline? Why give up now, even though the deal numbers make no sense, when there is still a chance that team co-owner George Shinn could be pushed to sell his share of the team and turn control of it -- and subsequently of co-owner and PR liability Ray Wooldridge -- to a new team of unlikely, but more publicly palatable owners currently fighting to buy the team from Shinn?

No, that would make about as much sense as holding the arena referendum on a day other than the day before the last day of school, when people are more likely to vote.

But Syfert could potentially pay a price for her exponential increase in power. Syfert may be dancing before the captive audience of the city council, but there's no rule that says the marionette strings can't be cut. If the June 5, $342 million sports and entertainment referendum passes, and if, or shall I say when there are construction cost overruns on the arena project and others, Syfert's handlers won't want to be connected to her by a marionette string -- or anything else. So snip, snip it will be.

Is all this worth it to keep this team? Like those down at city hall, I'm so close to this that I've lost perspective, and gained a few new ones about the way Charlotte's power elite work when they're desperate.

These people act as if this city will vaporize on the spot or something if we don't keep the team and the flailing league they play in. Maybe they know something we don't. Maybe the jewels in Charlotte's crown aren't as secure as we think. After all, the merger of First Union and Wachovia last week came with the concurrent announcement that Wachovia would no longer keep its corporate headquarters in Winston-Salem.

Poof! They're gone.

I bet they didn't think it could happen in Winston-Salem. We don't think it could happen here. If we stand, at any moment, to lose the few jewels in Charlotte's crown, it makes sense to hold onto the minor jewels we can do something about, rather than take the chance that five years down the road, the city will no longer sparkle.

But at what cost? Our corporate leadership has sold out. City staff has sold out. City council has, by and large, sold out. The Charlotte Observer is essentially the new arena's designated cheerleader. The Leader newspaper, once a bastion of reality based reporting, has sold its credibility for the advertising profits from pro-arena sponsors of a glossy pro-arena magazine that will be mailed to 100,000 households.

This, my friends, is the real Charlotte, the city that has sold its soul.

I just hope it's worth it.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius @cln.com

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