A former Minneapolis City Council member argued in court Wednesday that the city broke the law in an agreement with the city’s park board that gives the Vikings free use of the Commons park.
Paul Ostrow, who served on the council from 1998 to 2009, and former council candidate John Hayden allege in a lawsuit that the city violated its charter in a convoluted agreement that effectively subsidized the Commons park and a nearby parking ramp in downtown Minneapolis using $65 million in bonds.
Under the agreement, the Vikings can use the park without paying rent, and taxpayers will ultimately have to pay millions for a park that largely benefits the NFL team, Ostrow argued to Hennepin County District Judge Bruce Peterson.
Lawyers for the agencies involved in the deal say the agreement is legal and want Peterson to dismiss the lawsuit. Ann Walther, an attorney for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, said such arrangements are common and allow parks to thrive through partnerships.
The case represents the latest chapter in a legal fight over the 2013 agreement that created the Commons park, which opened in July 2016 and covers 4.2 acres adjacent to U.S. Bank Stadium. The arguments delve into the political motivations of the city for building the park and ramp, the appropriate relationship between the city and the Park Board, and whether the lease language requires spending of public funds.
The Commons park is owned by the Park Board, leased to the city and operated by a nonprofit organization. Who would pay to develop and operate it has been a subject of debate from the start, and last year, the Park Board agreed to spend $8 million on the park over 10 years, after private fundraising fell short.
In a previous lawsuit, Hayden, who ran for City Council last year, and Ostrow also challenged the park’s financing, asking for a temporary restraining order to keep the project from moving forward. Hennepin County District Judge Mel Dickstein declined the restraining order but said the city and Park Board must work together to run the park.
On Wednesday, across the courtroom from Ostrow — an attorney who is representing himself — and Hayden, sat lawyers for the Vikings, the city, the Park Board and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), which oversees U.S. Bank Stadium.
Judge Peterson heard arguments over who should legally be involved in the case and whether it should take another step toward a trial. Among the issues debated: Should Ostrow and Hayden even be allowed to sue, given they weren’t involved in the original contract? Why are the Vikings and MSFA named in the suit if the legal question arises from an agreement between the city and park board? And if Ostrow and Hayden prevailed, what would happen to the bond holders?
The 3½-hour hearing brought no answers, other than the judge’s conclusion that it’s a “complicated matter.”
At several points during the hearing, Peterson stopped Ostrow from making “eloquent speeches” over why the deal is bad for Minneapolis residents, instead asking him to focus on the legal aspects. Ostrow argued that the Vikings should be paying and alleged that the city pressured the Park Board to make the deal.
Elected officials “need to explain why they’re fighting so hard for the rights of the Vikings rather than fighting for the rights of the taxpayers,” he said in an interview after the hearing.
The team of attorneys for the defense have filed a motion asking the judge to throw out the lawsuit. Walther said the city regularly enters into similar agreements with the Park Board and other entities, citing the I-35W bridge collapse memorial as an example.
Walther praised Minneapolis parks for their national recognition. If the judges rules in favor of Ostrow and Hayden, the judgment could have larger detrimental effect, she said, in which case “we’re not going to have the best Park Board in America anymore.”
Peterson said he would review these and other arguments made in court, including the many precedents cited by both sides, and decide whether the case should proceed.