Stadium deal may test Minneapolis charter

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2012 - 5:57 AM

The plan for a Vikings stadium proposes bypassing a key local hurdle: a mandated vote on subsidies over $10M.

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The Minneapolis City Council chambers.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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In his backwoods sanctuary more than 200 miles north of Minneapolis, Bob Greenberg was rousted from his hunter-gatherer lifestyle earlier this month when politicians announced plans to subsidize a new Vikings stadium without a vote of the people.

The news brought Greenberg back to his former life, when he wrote the city charter amendment that now poses the greatest hurdle to supporters of a Vikings stadium in Minneapolis -- mandating a citywide vote on stadium subsidies of $10 million or more. Seventy percent of city voters approved that language in 1997 during talks of a new Twins ballpark, but it now faces its first real test as the Legislature considers a bill to ignore it altogether.

"I did not write this charter amendment to prevent the building of a stadium," said Greenberg, a former Twin Cities activist who moved into a woodland tent two years ago and lives off the land, including roadkill. "But only to force the city to put it before the voters."

The activists who fought for the referendum requirement have long parted ways, but now find themselves revisiting the passionate case they made for a public say in sports subsidies. Some are offended at what's going on. Others have changed their minds.

The three sentences in the Minneapolis charter have prompted a majority of the City Council to speak out against the latest stadium plan, which would bypass the referendum. When the referendum idea was born around a table in St. Paul 15 years ago, then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton wanted to dedicate $50 million to a new home for the Twins.

"I knew, as I said at those meetings, that they were going to get around it," said then-mayoral candidate and City Council Member Barbara Carlson, who supported the referendum requirement. But times change. Carlson now believes it was "a bad decision" and "referendums are insanity."

Mayor R.T. Rybak's latest proposal to fund a Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis would pay for the city's share of the facility by redirecting a group of sales taxes that currently pay for the convention center. That money becomes available when the convention center debt is paid in 2020. Stadium backers argue the sales taxes are state-authorized and therefore not city resources, an argument reflected in the stadium bill introduced Friday.

Greenberg knew any loopholes would be exploited, which was why he included a laundry list of funding options to spur a vote, including "sales tax or other taxes."

"I pulled my brains out [imagining] what is every single way that they could finance this? How could they find a way around this?"

Rybak has argued that his deal, which he says will lower property taxes by paying debt on Target Center, is a much more complicated package than what the referendum is meant to address. But Council Member Gary Schiff, who developed the idea with Greenberg, says voters still want a voice in this deal.

"The polling continues to show that the citizens haven't changed their minds," Schiff said, referring to a KSTP-TV/SurveyUSA poll last month indicating that 68 percent of the public wants the stadium to be privately funded.

City voters have resisted stadium subsidies before. In 1973, they approved a charter amendment meant to prevent city funding of what would become the Metrodome.

The prohibition of city bonding for more than $15 million on infrastructure projects without a referendum -- which remains in the charter -- was later skirted by issuing the bonds through separate agencies.

The ineffectiveness of that 1973 amendment arose during a committee discussion of the 1997 proposal, according to meeting minutes. Carlson felt politicians were circumventing the 1973 amendment and was unhappy to hear the state could override the wishes of city residents. "Carlson was surprised that it seemed to make no difference what the residents want," the minutes said.

The drive to garner 13,000 signatures and put the new amendment on the ballot was led by Progressive Minnesota, a small group based in St. Paul.

"It wasn't an organization with thousands of members," Schiff said. "It was a dozen people getting together saying, 'Hey, we can do this.'"

Cara Letofsky, who stood on street corners collecting signatures in the summer of 1997, is no longer as gung-ho about such referendums. Having the charter requirement forces city officials to obtain a good deal, but she also would not mind if they maneuver around it, she said.

"I have a different kind of sensibility about that approach to lawmaking, you know?" said Letofsky, who spent five years as Rybak's policy aide. "We see it coming out of the State Capitol, with all these constitutional amendment proposals."

Other supporters are more critical of the legal argument being explored by stadium backers. Steve Macek, an early supporter who now teaches at a college in Naperville, Ill., said the intent was to provide "democratic accountability" in cases when pro sports franchises "try to basically extort money from the city."

Rybak's argument is "against the spirit of what we had talked about when we first started the push for this requirement," Macek said.

Two City Council members have said bypassing the referendum requirement invites a lawsuit. City officials could not find legal opinions on the amendment from the late 1990s, despite news articles at the time saying one would likely be released. Rybak's city attorney, however, says his argument has firm legal standing.

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

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