The man who wrote much of the state’s data practices act admits that he has little idea what is meant by the data practices language contained in the joint powers agreement on the proposed Midway soccer stadium, expected to be approved Wednesday by three separate bodies.
And that's the tipoff that there's a problem, he said.
“In my view, what it’s all about is to try to keep as much about this transaction secret as possible, and to obligate the parties to do everything they can to keep it secret,” said Don Gemberling, a retired state employee who now sits on the board of the watchdog group Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Tom Collins, a spokesman for the St. Paul Port Authority. He said the language is boilerplate intended to protect, among other things, the Met Council from releasing property appraisals during an ongoing lawsuit filed by the property holders next door.
The agreement formalizes negotiations between the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Council on a lease agreement for a vacant 10-acre site owned by the Met Council at Snelling Avenue and Interstate 94. The site has gone begging for development for decades, but interest has spiked because the owners of the Minnesota United FC soccer team reportedly are interested in building a $120 million stadium there for a new Major League Soccer franchise.
On Wednesday, the Met Council, Port Authority and St. Paul City Council each will take up the agreement and likely pass it without much debate. In anticipation of passage, Mayor Chris Coleman announced Tuesday the formation of a citizen advisory committee to provide community input on design and development of a soccer stadium and the broader site that would surround it. Those interested in serving can apply through Nov. 4; the committee’s first meeting will be in December.
The parties say the joint powers agreement merely provides a framework for ongoing discussion and information sharing. It may be even more important, they add, as a signal to the MLS that St. Paul is serious about its bid to host the team.
But about two of its five pages have to do with whether information traded among the city, the authority and the council would be available to the public. For the most part, the agreement says that such information “remains nonpublic to the fullest extent of the law in order to facilitate a full and complete exchange of information, to facilitate the potential development of the property, and to provide record support that the negotiations and communications are considered nonpublic or trade secret/confidential.”
How can there be trade secrets involved in a property lease negotiation? Gemberling wondered. “There are references to statutory provisions that just don’t apply to the situation, and that makes me very suspicious,” he said.
“The resolution is public, the mayor’s intention is public, the bus barn site has been identified as the best site,” Collins said. The team owners, he said, “have clearly stated they plan to privately build a stadium and turn it over to the city. It can’t be clearer than that.”
The only way to know for sure whether the agreement butts up against state law, Gemberling said, is if someone challenges it. And that’s the problem with the state’s data practices act, he said: lack of enforcement. “In truth, most lawyers would look at this language and say they have no idea what it says, because most lawyers aren’t conversant with the act,” he said.