Minnesota’s legislative auditor said in a report released Wednesday that the University of Minnesota should consider restricting access for family and friends of university officials to a large suite reserved for the president and Board of Regents members at TCF Bank Stadium.
The report is the result of a monthslong review of governance and suite use at six publicly subsidized sports facilities in Minneapolis and St. Paul. State legislators requested the review after reports of questionable use of two luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Those revelations led the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which oversees U.S. Bank Stadium, to bar the practice of using the suites to entertain friends and family of stadium oversight officials at taxpayer expense. The Minnesota Ballpark Authority, which oversees Target Field, changed its policy as well regarding its one state-owned suite. At U.S. Bank Stadium, the two luxury suites are now designated solely for marketing; the state-owned suite at Target Field has gone to charities this season.
The auditor’s report noted that the TCF Bank Stadium policy for the suite reserved for the president and Board of Regents is that “strategic guests are supplemented with family and friends, who are always welcome in the suite.”
The university’s Board of Regents oversees the stadium. Regents control 52 out of the 96 seats in the suite, with the president controlling the other 44. The report said that in the 2016 Gophers football season, the number of family members of university officials ranged from seven to 17 per game. Family members of other invited guests also used the suite.
At the Purdue game on Nov. 5, the report determined that 49 of the 109 guests in the suite were family or friends of a regent, the university president or staff.
In a written response, Board of Regents Executive Director Brian Steeves said the regents would “review” existing practices for family and friends. But he also argued that the auditor’s report fails to distinguish clearly the difference between operating a facility on behalf of the state university and running one for the financial benefit of a professional sports team.
“Fulfilling the university’s mission requires interactions to nurture and build relationships that, ultimately, benefit the people of Minnesota,” Steeves wrote.
The auditor’s report didn’t buy into that assertion, saying “public dollars have helped build and operate” both stadiums and that governing bodies of both should be “subject to certain ethical guideposts.”
The report also found that the food and alcohol were free for guests at TCF Bank Stadium. At the other end, neither food nor alcohol was ever provided in the suite at Target Field. Food, but not alcohol, was free in the state-owned suites at U.S. Bank Stadium.
In addition to U.S. Bank Stadium, Target Field and TCF Bank Stadium, the report looked into operations at Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild; Target Center, home to the Minnesota Lynx and Timberwolves; and CHS Field, where the St. Paul Saints baseball team plays. All were initially publicly subsidized in a range from 18 percent at Target Center to 83 percent at CHS Field.
Neither Xcel nor CHS Field, the two facilities in St. Paul, or Target Center operates suites for use by governing bodies members or employees.
Significantly, the legislative auditor declined to recommend the Legislature create a single governing body for all of the facilities — a structure that was raised as a possibility in the 2012 bill that authorized construction of U.S. Bank Stadium. The report found it reasonable to have varying arrangements for oversight and operation of the buildings, given differences in how they were funded and are used.
The report suggested the governing groups adopt policies that ensure members don’t discuss policies at gatherings in the suites. Doing so when a quorum of members is preset would be a violation of the state open-meeting law.
The report also addressed use of the publicly subsidized facilities for high school league events and encouraged the Legislature to consider a uniform fee policy for high school events.
U.S. Bank Stadium in the recently completed fiscal year provided space for football and soccer games at no cost to the high school league.
In contrast, Xcel took in $1.1 million from the high school league. The university received $462,000 from the league for multiple venues for swimming, hockey, basketball, gymnastics and baseball and Target Center received $391,000 for high school basketball and dance team events.
The league’s executive director, Dave Stead, told the auditors that publicly subsidized sports facilities should offer free access to high school events. The university disagreed in the written response, saying the costs would simply be shifted to other areas of the budget.
“Unlike facilities operated for the benefit of for-profit professional teams, the university’s mission is not to simply operate a facility,” Steeves wrote. “It has a higher public purpose — and its venues across all campuses must serve the university’s students and advance its mission.”