Friends and family won’t be welcome anymore in the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority’s two luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium, a practice that ran into a public backlash last month.
“It’s important to restore the public trust and say that, for now, we’re not going to have friends and family,” MSFA Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen said Friday at the panel’s monthly meeting.
The ban passed on a voice vote, but three of the four commissioners pressed Kelm-Helgen on whether the board was overreacting to public criticism.
Commissioner Barbara Butts Williams expressed doubts that the new policy is reasonable. “We’re here to enjoy ourselves and really be part of the people’s stadium ... and we want to share it with friends and family,” she said, adding that there was “a lot of misunderstanding” about the use of the suites.
Two luxury suites under the control of the MSFA became an issue when the Star Tribune reported last month that the board wouldn’t identify what were up to 36 guests per event that had been invited to the suites since the opening soccer match on Aug. 3. Kelm-Helgen and executive director Ted Mondale controlled the suites that sell for a minimum of $200,000 for the 10-game Vikings season. Commissioners also got free tickets to events.
After the MSFA initially refused to release the names of the guests in the suites, saying they hadn’t kept lists of people, a dozen public officials — including Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and her husband, Gary Cunningham, as well as some state commissioners — paid $200 each for their seats and acknowledged they had been in the suites. Ten University of Minnesota administrators also revealed that they had been guests and paid for their tickets.
Acting on the newspaper’s story, legislative auditor James Nobles last month opened a priority investigation into the MSFA’s use of the suites.
Kelm-Helgen and Mondale, as well as their supporters on the commission, say they need the suites to fulfill their “public purpose” of marketing the building and filling its party rooms for meetings and conferences. Republican legislators have questioned that claim, especially given that the full guest lists released Monday was heavy on politically connected DFLers. Some $21,000 in reimbursements have been paid since the newspaper’s story last month.
But some commissioners seemed to think the new restrictions were too much.
Commissioner John Griffith, who never used the suites for a Vikings game and was at his last meeting because he wasn’t reappointed by Gov. Mark Dayton, said that at similar private-sector events spouses attend and that they should be able to be in the suites, too.
Commissioner Bill McCarthy, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, who hosted his grandchildren and labor leaders in the suites among others, said he agreed with Griffith’s position.
Commissioner Tony Sertich, a former DFL legislator, participated in the brief discussion via conference call because he was ill at home, Kelm-Helgen said. With only two Vikings games remaining, he suggested the board adopt the strict ban on friends and family for now and “revisit the issue of what is reasonable later.”
The adoption of the new policy came on a voice vote at the regularly scheduled meeting held in the stadium. Only two members of the public spoke at the public forum. One spoke against the suites. The other urged the Vikings to change the team name to something less offensive.
Republican legislators, led by incoming Senate Finance Chair Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, expressed “disgust” at the MSFA practices regarding invitations to the suites. She has said she will take an in-depth look at the MSFA’s use of the suites as well as the concentration and duplication of work by the board appointed by Dayton and the city of Minneapolis.
At stadiums across the country, practices on suite use vary widely. Some stadiums, like those in Cincinnati, have in recent years banned publicly used suites.
At the other end, a public body controls a suite for Indianapolis Colts games, but won’t identify who gets to sit in them without a formal data request.