Hennepin County commissioner named to Sun Country board, raising questions about conflict.
As Hennepin County Board chair and the public official who led the charge to build the Twins ballpark, Mike Opat is one of Minnesota's best-known and respected elected leaders.
Which is why Sun Country Airlines wanted him for its board of directors -- and why it seemed as if the line between public and private duties was being blurred when Opat accepted the appointment last month.
Opat, who is up for re-election this year, said he expects no conflicts. If they were to arise, he said, he would follow state law.
"I made it clear to those guys that if there's ever anything that comes before us that would cause a conflict, I'd consult the county attorney's office" and take himself out of debate or action on the issue, Opat said.
The unusual nature of his new position was underscored, however, when officials with state and national county associations said they were certain of other instances where full-time elected officeholders sat on private boards -- but couldn't come up with any.
David Schultz, a specialist in government ethics and campaign finance at Hamline University, said it's "really rare" for an elected leader of a large government to sit on a private board.
"In a small town, someone might serve on the city council and also serve on the Acme Construction board," Schultz said. "But I can't think of any other examples like this."
Pay but no play
Opat said that Sun Country will pay him $25,000 a year for serving on its board, about one-fourth of his county salary.
"It's a great opportunity to involve myself with a fantastic Minnesota company," he said.
But discount flying perks don't come with it, said Marty Davis, Sun Country's chairman and the president and CEO of Cambria countertops.
"Nobody travels free on Sun Country but our employees, and that's part of their earnings," Davis said.
The airline's board meets quarterly, Opat said, far less time than he spends coaching baseball or basketball. Hennepin County commissioners are listed as full-time.
Davis said Opat and attorney Robert Fafinski Jr., who also joined the board last month, each brings unique strengths to the company. The board's other four members are Sun Country CEO Stan Gadek; Davis' father, Mark, and brother Jon; and Cambria CFO Jim Ward.
"Mike's public-sector experience was really what attracted us," Davis said. "I was impressed with his pragmatism and his ability to handle people who come from other perspectives."
Opat's politics weren't a factor, Davis said. "Mike's a strong character guy -- and a Democrat. I'm a Republican. Tell the guy who's opposing him I'll be voting for him," he said with a laugh.
Jeff Spartz, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties and a former Hennepin County commissioner, said he could only recall cases where officials served on boards for family-owned companies in which they had a stake.
On the other hand, he pointed out, it's common for elected officials to serve on nonprofit boards such as the United Way or the Minneapolis Aquatennial.
Opat said nonprofit boards actually may pose more conflicts for elected leaders, since many of those organizations receive public funding. He served for a while on the board of the Arc Greater Twin Cities, an advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities, before removing himself and joining the Arc's honorary board instead.
"It was a little too close to home, even though [Hennepin County] didn't have any contracts with Arc," he said.
Possible conflicts are issue
Under state law, there's nothing illegal or unethical about an elected official sitting on a private board.
"There's no inherent inappropriateness about a commissioner being a member of a board of directors of a private company, any more than for a nonprofit," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said.
The main issue is when a matter involving the company comes before that person in the course of his or her official duties. If that happened, state law would require Opat to alert county officials to a possible conflict of interest.
"If Hennepin County is going to enter into a big interaction with Sun Country, Mike should recuse himself and our role would be to suggest that he do that," Freeman said.
Spartz said that he thought such conflicts were unlikely.
Sun Country, which is based at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and has its headquarters in Dakota County, has no contracts with Hennepin County. It hasn't had a lobbyist at the State Capitol for 10 years.
Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the state's Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, said that Opat wouldn't necessarily be prohibited from voting on a matter that affected all airlines equally -- only something that might treat Sun Country differently from other companies.
Stephens, who's in her first political race, said that she had "no reason to question Mr. Opat's integrity" but wondered whether his Sun Country service was appropriate.
Stephens, a project manager for UnitedHealth Group Inc., is secretary of the board for ISAIAH, a Twin Cities faith coalition that works on housing and economic issues. She said she would leave ISAIAH if she's elected to the County Board.
"It's important to me that if the good people of District One choose to elevate me, I would make that sacrifice," she said.
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455