The Vadnais Sports Center is probably one of the more embarrassing episodes in the history of this northern St. Paul suburb. So it’s understandable that some leaders in Vadnais Heights want it to go away.
The ice arena and fieldhouse complex wasn’t supposed to cost taxpayers anything to operate when it opened in 2010. But it quickly turned into a money-losing operation that the city propped up before Ramsey County bought it in 2014. The center’s fired operator sued the city, and the case lingered for years before it finally settled in January, with the city and its insurer paying out $255,000. In all, the city spent about $6 million on the project.
As part of its effort to find out what went wrong, the city commissioned an audit of the sports center’s finances. While the city was embroiled in litigation, though, the never-completed, $12,000 audit was shielded under attorney-client privilege.
Attorney-client privilege is intended to preserve a lawyer’s ability to communicate openly with clients without fear that those records will be used against them.
With the litigation over, Vadnais Heights City Council Member Bob Fletcher alerted his colleagues in May that he would push for releasing the audit to the public. Fletcher, the former Ramsey County sheriff, attributes his election to the council in 2014 to public concern over the sports center controversy.
“Not releasing a document that was paid for with public funds creates a terrible precedent,” Fletcher wrote in a May 4 memo. “Releasing it brings additional finality to the Vadnais Heights Sports Center issue and follows through on some of the City Council’s prior comments that the audit documents could be released after the lawsuit was settled. At a minimum I’m sure we would all like to see what the $12,000 paid for.”
In memos, City Attorney Caroline Bell Beckman and City Administrator Kevin Watson urged the council to keep the audit confidential, saying it could lead to more legal trouble.
Watson also mentioned in the memo that a prior council had made a “commitment” to release the information. But on Friday, Watson said that he was “just referring to talk that has circulated around the issue” and that the council had never made a “formal commitment” to make the audit public.
On June 1, the council convened to consider Fletcher’s resolution to lift the attorney-client privilege. It’s clear from the discussion, archived on a city webcast, that withholding the audit was as much about stopping bad news as it was about any legal worries.
“It would … not be in the benefit of the community to try and resurrect things and cause additional argument and discussion about this issue,” said Mayor Marc Johannsen. Johannsen, a lawyer, backed the sports center when he was a City Council member. “We should let the issue be done.”
The council voted 3-2 to keep the audit confidential.
Fletcher said Friday that he hasn’t given up and that he would request the audit again at the council’s meeting next week.
“It’s a bizarre position to take that we wouldn’t want to get this out and be done with it,” Fletcher said.
In an interview Friday, the mayor said that he had never seen the audit but that he nevertheless is convinced there’s nothing new in it.
Johannsen questioned why I would even write about the issue, given that the June 1 vote was “ancient history.” He said a better story would be the good things happening in the northeast metro.
So here’s one: Vadnais Heights’ 41st annual Heritage Days Celebration runs Aug. 18-21. The city website promises “a medallion hunt, movie in the park, senior picnic, Lions pig roast, kiddie parade, children’s games and inflatables, bingo, car show, food and merchandise vendors, fireworks, live bands, Grande Parade, Booya, bean bag tournaments, softball tournaments, a water ball tournament between local fire departments, and more!”
The Vadnais Sports Center was not mentioned.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.