The City of Aberdeen has allocated up to $150,000 to begin defending itself from a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed by Tufton Professional Baseball LLC, which owns the Aberdeen IronBirds minor league baseball team.
The mayor and council voted 4-1 Monday to amend the city’s fiscal 2019 budget to cover a transfer from its general fund balance to the Ripken Stadium fund, a separate enterprise fund in the overall city budget.
Councilman Tim Lindecamp cast the negative vote, saying “I believe this is a waste of taxpayer money.”
Tufton filed suit against the city in October in the Harford County Circuit Court, alleging Aberdeen officials had breached the city’s contract with Tufton. The company’s majority owners are Cal Ripken Jr. and Bill Ripken, Harford County natives and former Baltimore Orioles players.
Tufton is the sole tenant of the city-owned Ripken Stadium, where the IronBirds, an Orioles single-A affiliate, plays from June to September in the New York-Penn League. The lawsuit was filed after nearly two years of disagreement between the city and Tufton over issues such as management of non-baseball events at the 16-year-old stadium and funding for capital repairs and maintenance.
Mayor Patrick McGrady said Monday that the $150,000 “is not the totality that we expect to spend on this lawsuit — this is our best guess at this point in time.”
He said the council could vote on another budget amendment if things change and the city must fund additional legal expenses, but “of course, we don’t aspire to that.”
“We are working with our legal team to make sure that we are being frugal with the city’s money and looking at the costs and benefits of the legal strategy as we go into the future,” McGrady said.
Aberdeen resident Bob Hartman recommended, during the public comment portion of the meeting prior to the council’s vote on the budget amendment, that the amount of money for legal expenses in the suit be capped at $150,000.
The city should close Ripken Stadium and establish an Aberdeen community center there if it looks like legal expenses will go higher than the amount budgeted, Hartman said.
He said a stadium commission should be established if the city continues to operate Ripken Stadium so the community can provide input on operations, “not, all of a sudden, we’ve got to go to court to argue things out.” It could consist of local residents — including people who live in the neighborhoods off Gilbert Road near the stadium — District E Harford County Councilman Robert Wagner or a member of his staff and representatives from Tufton.
“It shouldn’t be just put on your shoulders up here,” he told the mayor and City Council members. “We need to have [public] input.”
The mayor and council went into a closed session after the open council meeting, to consult with staff about “pending or potential litigation” and to consult with City Attorney Frederick Sussman.
The city has until Thursday to file a response to the Ripkens’ lawsuit, McGrady said when officials returned to open session about 90 minutes later.
“We think that we’ll be able to respond within the time frame,” the mayor said.