A Hennepin County judge has determined that the Vikings stadium deal would have triggered a Minneapolis charter requirement to hold a public vote, contradicting repeated statements from Mayor R.T. Rybak and his city attorney when they were selling the plan in 2012.

The opinion from District Judge Philip Bush has little impact on the $975 million stadium in downtown Minneapolis, since the Legislature explicitly overrode the city’s charter in the final stadium legislation. But it rekindles a core argument made by the City Council’s six stadium opponents: That the deal violated a charter mandate for the city to hold a referendum if it spends more than $10 million on a sports facility.

The city attorney’s office issued a written opinion at the time saying that — even without the legislative override — the referendum wasn’t necessary because the local sales taxes used for the stadium weren’t technically “city resources.” Susan Segal’s opinion was a factor in securing the council’s decisive swing vote, Sandy Colvin Roy, and six members of the slim majority that supported the deal stated in writing that they would not approve anything that violated the city’s charter.

Bush wrote in a memo Tuesday that the referendum would have been triggered since the funds were, in fact, city resources. He simultaneously dismissed a petition from former mayoral candidate Doug Mann seeking a referendum on the deal, however, because the stadium legislation passed by the Legislature explicitly pre-empted the charter.

The charter requirement to hold referendums on city sports facility spending was approved by 70 percent of city voters in 1997. It was co-authored by Council Member Gary Schiff. “Voters were denied their opportunity to exercise their vote on whether or not they agreed with this massive subsidy,” he said Wednesday.

Under the final Vikings agreement, the city pledged to pay $150 million for construction of the stadium and $189 million for its operations — not including interest costs. The money comes sales taxes already imposed in the city, including a citywide sales tax, a hotel tax and downtown restaurant and liquor taxes.

In her opinion, Segal wrote that the funds weren’t city resources because they were state-controlled and never entered the city treasury.

At the time, Rybak said: “Our city attorney looked at the package that we have, which has the state retaining the tax dollars that they have and for the first time giving us some local control over other dollars. And that is not seen as violating our charter.”

Bush said the city’s arguments do not hold up, pointing to the wording of the charter language itself, which includes “sales tax” in the definition of “city resources.”

“The voters’ intent is not undone simply because the statutory mechanism for collecting and directing the sales tax revenue funding the stadium precludes the city from using that revenue for any other purpose,” Bush wrote. He added that since the stadium legislation describes the city’s “share” of the funding, “‘city resources’ must be in play.”

Segal’s opinion was crucial to swaying the council’s swing vote, Colvin Roy, who in January 2012 said she could not “countenance going around that referendum.” Colvin Roy became a supporter in March — a move that secured the majority.

Colvin Roy said then that she leaned heavily on Segal’s opinion. “I made a statement about the referendum,” Colvin Roy said. “I did not have the legal opinion about whether it would be triggered or not, whether it would be required. And now I do. And once I did have that, I disregarded my personal feelings and started looking at facts.”

Colvin Roy, who is leaving the council, did not return a request for comment on Wednesday.

Rybak has never favored doing a referendum, noting to an audience this week that “referendum government is in my mind a terrible thing.” Following one of the initial hearings on the Vikings issue in 2012, Rybak said, “We are going to have a referendum in a couple of years when I stand for re-election.” He announced that December that he would not seek another term, however.

The mayor’s office said Wednesday that Rybak wasn’t available for comment. Segal said in a statement that she was pleased the court dismissed Mann’s petition. “I respectfully disagree with the court’s reasoning but, in the end, the court reached the correct decision,” she wrote.


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