State, O's Collide In Parking Pass Feud

Stadium Agency Is Sued For `Counterfeit' Passes

April 22, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Parking has gotten tight for Orioles games, but scarce enough that the state would print itself phony parking passes?

The Orioles think so, and filed a lawsuit yesterday accusing the Maryland Stadium Authority of printing and distributing unauthorized Camden Yards parking passes to its employees.

The Stadium Authority denied the charge and countered with its own allegations: that the team is giving away more free parking than allowed, denying taxpayers money the team is supposed to share with the state.

It took the diplomatic intervention of Circuit Court Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan to nudge the two sides to a truce yesterday on how the parking passes will be distributed this season.

That even a simple matter such as distributing 50 passes on a 3,000-space parking lot would require mediation speaks volumes about the dismal state of relations between the Stadium Authority and its charter tenant.

And matters are bound to get worse. The state formally filed Friday for arbitration of the parking issue and other matters. Among them: allegations that the team owes the Stadium Authority about $100,000 and that the team has unreasonably restricted rental of the warehouse to other paying tenants.

It is the first time the complicated conflict-resolution mechanism has been triggered in the five years since the Orioles' 156-page lease was signed.

The parking dispute stems from the displacement of several thousand parking spaces by the construction of the Ravens' stadium on what used to be parking lots D and E, south of Oriole Park. In a wholesale reassignment of spots, some season-ticket holders were moved to premium spaces alongside the long, brick warehouse.

In the past, the Stadium Authority used dozens of those and other premium spaces for its employees during games. It asked for 104 spaces this season, spread throughout a number of the choice lots.

But the Orioles said they had sold the spaces to fans and offered just 25 premier spaces for state workers, bumping the rest to the dingy, partially-paved area around the Hammerjacks nightclub, which the Stadium Authority recently bought. The team says the spaces near Hammerjacks are unsuitable for its fans.

Better that government workers be inconvenienced than fans, the team says.

The Stadium Authority overruled the team earlier this month by telling the company it hired to operate the stadium's lots to print up 78 extra passes in choice lots.

The state says it can do this because it built and runs the lots. The lease says the state should operate the lots subject to "reasonable" concurrence of the team. It also guarantees the Stadium Authority 130 spaces, 25 of them in priority locations, for its employees, agents and contractors during games.

The Orioles said the new passes were "counterfeit" and persuaded Kaplan to convene a hearing yesterday morning. The team asked the judge to revoke the 78 passes and order the state to pay damages of at least $1 million.

"What is mind-boggling about it, in recognition of the scarcity of parking, is that a state agency is fending for itself at the public's expense," said Orioles attorney Alan M. Rifkin, complaining that ticket-buying fans were displaced by the government workers.

Not so fast, says the state. The team is permitted, under its lease, to give away 500 spaces to its employees, vendors, media and other specified people. But the state says the team has actually given away 724, including more than 300 in the choicest lots -- a much greater displacement of fans.

"My reading of the lease is it never says the Orioles issue parking passes. When they didn't issue these passes by Opening Day, we just issued them ourselves," said Stadium Authority general counsel Alison Asti.

Besides, the Stadium Authority argued, disputes such as this should be settled through negotiation or the arbitration procedure of the lease, not in a courtroom.

The judge adjourned and brought attorneys for both sides into his chambers for about two hours of spirited negotiations, after which they emerged with a compromise for this season.

Each side will have a limited number of parking freebies to hand out for each game: 500 for the Orioles and 130 for the Stadium Authority. The state will be guaranteed 50 spots in specific, premium lots, including 25 alongside the warehouse. The two sides will exchange lists of people with free parking.

Agreement in place, Kaplan moved the Orioles' lawsuit to the inactive docket and sent the parties on their way. The matter now goes to arbitration, along with the other issues raised by the Stadium Authority.

The Orioles had said last year that they intended to seek arbitration on the matter of contractual "parity" with the Ravens' agreement with the Stadium Authority.

But the case has lumbered along with both sides exchanging documents and trying to resolve the issues, shy of formal arbitration. On Friday, the state went ahead and triggered the process, arguing that the team has "breached material obligations" under its lease.

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