As they considered the Vikings stadium deal last week, Minneapolis City Council members could look out at an audience of workers wearing reflective construction jackets and fans clad in purple and horns.

What was missing: a crowd of citizens angry about the city spending hundreds of millions on a stadium without holding a referendum.

Although the issue deeply divided the council and city voters, progressive activists that propelled a stadium referendum requirement into the city charter 15 years ago were largely absent when the provision faced its first real test. Even signs that occasionally appeared at forums and hearings, "Stop Stadium Taxes," were recycled from an earlier stadium push in Anoka County.

In the end, the council passed the stadium legislation by one vote and simultaneously bypassed the 1997 provision to require a citywide vote when more than $10 million is spent on a stadium. The city attorney argued the plan would not have triggered the referendum anyway.

"That's seven people here that are able to make that decision that was made in 1997 by 62,000 people," Council Member Cam Gordon, a stadium opponent, said Friday.

Dave Bicking, a progressive activist who has run for council, theorized outside the council chambers after the final vote that anti-stadium activists are disillusioned by many local decisions that have ignored public opinion.

"People are disgusted," Bicking said. "They aren't ready to show up. I'm discouraged from that standpoint. I'd like to see 1,000 angry people here. But I also understand where they're coming from."

Another City Hall regular who has run for council, Michael Katch, interjected with similar sentiments. "The term 'You can't fight City Hall'... I think they pretty much have accepted that as a reality," Katch said.

Council Member Gary Schiff, who co-authored the charter amendment in 1997, noted that the drive to get it on the ballot was coordinated by a small group. The organization behind it, Progressive Minnesota, has since merged into TakeAction Minnesota, which Schiff believes did not organize around the charter because representatives of labor unions sit on its board of directors.

"Usually, organizing is most effective when there's an organization taking it on," Schiff said. "And Progressive Minnesota was sidelined and there really wasn't any other organization that emerged to take this on."

Over at TakeAction Minnesota, executive director Dan McGrath says the group did not make the stadium -- and the charter -- a priority because it's more focused on statewide issues. Of Schiff's allegation that labor ties discouraged TakeAction Minnesota from getting involved, McGrath said, "No one asked us not to work on this."

State Rep. Jim Davnie, who solicited signatures for the charter amendment with his wife in 1997, said some people later saw the value of Target Field while others "are a bit exhausted with the stadium issues."

"It's harder to get up the fight, because you've fought and lost and fought and lost," said Davnie, a Minneapolis DFLer who voted against the stadium bill.

Many key players in the 1997 push have left the Twin Cities. Bob Greenberg, who wrote the original language, lives off-the-grid in the northern Minnesota wilderness. Several other early supporters now live or work out of state.

Many people throughout the 2012 process wrote letters and sent e-mail to City Council members. But when anti-stadium forces started organizing publicly against the legislation, it probably was too little too late.

Weeks after the wavering council members put their support in writing, the Taxpayers League of Minnesota dropped fliers and then unveiled an unscientific phone survey. That was followed hours later by a 50-person rally, mainly of Occupy activists and welfare defenders, outside City Hall.

Gordon, who noted that there were active petitions and e-mail campaigns, said what activists faced this year was a substantially different task than 15 years ago -- getting a referendum before voters.

"In '97, you could collect signatures and make a difference," Gordon said. "In 2012, all you can do is hope and pray and beg your elected officials to vote the way you want them to."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper