The job of the embattled head of the U.S. Bank Stadium oversight panel could be in jeopardy after a legislative panel voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to overhaul the organization, a 17-1 vote of solidarity that bucked Gov. Mark Dayton's position.
The House Government Operations Committee endorsed the bill after a presentation from one sponsor, Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, about the Legislature's goal of exercising more control over the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority in the aftermath of reports that its commissioners and staff were using two taxpayer-owned luxury suites to entertain family and friends after the stadium opened Aug. 3.
The MSFA is responsible for providing public oversight of the $1.1 billion downtown Minneapolis stadium, built with $498 million in public funds. But the panel's efficacy and ethics have been questioned since a Star Tribune story in late November revealed the use of two 18-person luxury suites to host friends and family for Vikings games, among other high-priced events such as Metallica and Luke Bryan concerts.
Dayton, a DFLer, has stood firmly behind the MSFA, dismissing criticism as partisan attacks and media sensationalism. Although he could veto a bill, the deep DFL support for MSFA changes puts him at odds with his own party.
Anderson's bill would increase from five to seven the number of people on the board and disburse the appointments more widely. It also would eliminate the position of full-time chair, making it a mostly volunteer job. Currently, the board has a chair, Michele Kelm-Helgen, and an executive director, Ted Mondale, who earn a collective $300,000.
The need for the two positions has come into question because the MSFA also has a 10-year contract with global marketing giant SMG to promote and book the stadium. Kelm-Helgen and Mondale said they were using the luxury suites to market the building.
In yet another indication of legislative unease with the MSFA, key GOP House legislators e-mailed a letter late Tuesday to the MSFA questioning the spending powers of Mondale and Kelm-Helgen. The letter noted that the two were able to enter contracts of up to $2 million last year without the full board's approval. The letter also questioned how DFL-connected public relations firm Tunheim Partners got its $200,000 annual contract with the MSFA for "communications services."
In the House committee, Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, was the only "no" vote. He unsuccessfully sought to substitute bills that would leave the MSFA intact for a year while studying the structure. The Legislature could make changes — if necessary — in 2018, he said. He argued against shaking up the board with less than a year before the Super Bowl.
The initial story detailed how the MSFA had given free tickets to several state commissioners, Minneapolis officials and friends and family members. Legislative Auditor James Nobles subsequently investigated and issued a 100-page report last week that said the MSFA violated a core ethical principle by using a public position for personal gain. He also said the Legislature should be more vigilant of board activities and exercise more control over the board.
Neither Kelm-Helgen nor Mondale was at the meeting for the vote, but she issued a statement saying the MSFA responded to public outcry by changing the suite policy to exclude friends and family and to "enhance record-keeping." She said the MSFA is willing to work with the Legislature on other issues.
Last week, Nobles presented his audit at a House-Senate committee hearing, most of which was spent with Republicans skeptically questioning Kelm-Helgen and Mondale, whose defense, in part, was that they were doing what has always been done.
In arguing for new leadership and restructuring, Anderson noted that Nobles' audit had emphasized his difficulty in getting accurate, detailed information from the MSFA, which submitted suite attendance records on napkins and in mismatched and incomplete form. "None of the numbers jibed," she said. "None."
The House State Government Finance Committee, chaired by Anderson, plans to consider the bill Thursday. If it passes, the bill would go to the full House for a vote.