The new chairwoman of the U.S. Bank Stadium oversight panel posed lots of questions in her first meeting Friday, a departure from the habit of current commissioners who rarely spoke.
Incoming Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) Chairwoman Kathleen Blatz, the former state Supreme Court chief justice, showed an interest in many technical aspects of contracts and proposals. She attended her first meeting as one of the five commissioners, but will replace outgoing Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen at the next meeting.
The meeting was a finale for Kelm-Helgen, who resigned last week amid backlash over her personal use of two taxpayer-owned luxury suites during Minnesota Vikings games, concerts and soccer matches. MSFA executive director Ted Mondale resigned last week for similar reasons, but did not attend the meeting.
On Friday, the board tended to several issues, including the appointment of a short-term interim executive director, updates on legislative action that could affect stadium oversight and a plea from environmentalists to take immediate action to protect birds from crashing into the glassy stadium.
Jim Farstad, who has been the chief technology adviser on the stadium for the past four years, will serve as the interim executive director, but Blatz said she expects to select a longer-term interim director at the next meeting on March 10. Farstad will be paid at the same rate as Mondale.
The MSFA management structure is in flux because the Legislature — and now DFL Gov. Mark Dayton — are working to restructure the panel, which has oversight of the $1.1 billion publicly subsidized stadium.
The change came after leading Republicans in the Legislature were angered by the commissioners’ use of the suites, VIP parking and catering for commissioners, their friends and family.
The MSFA since has banned friends and family from using the suites.
At the encouragement of Blatz on Friday, they further tightened the policy to eliminate the category of “other” under the groups of people who still could use the suites. The Legislature aims to have a bill passed and a new MSFA suites policy in place by mid-July.
After her appointment, Blatz said her role is to help restore any loss of public confidence and trust in the management of the new stadium.
A proposal advancing at the State Capitol would expand the MSFA board to seven, make the chair elected by the membership rather than the governor and limit the chair’s salary to a per diem identical to the other commissioners. At the time of their resignation, Kelm-Helgen and Mondale made nearly $300,000.
The proposal instructs the new authority to negotiate the return of the suites to the Vikings. But the bill still must be approved by the House, the Senate and signed by the governor.
Blatz’s leadership appeared to energize members of the board. For four years, board members rarely spoke or raised issues. Blatz asked more questions in the first 20 minutes than all other commissioners combined in the past year. The new approach was contagious and the meeting lasted more than two hours — double the standard meeting.
Commissioner Barbara Butts Williams asked detailed questions about contracts and the equity plan for stadium employees. Commissioners Bill McCarthy and Tony Sertich also spoke more than they ever have at a single meeting. They’re not likely to be around past summer, once the new legislative proposal becomes law and the board is replaced. All three were frequent users of the luxury suites, entertaining friends and family during games and concerts.
The board also heard a report from the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis about an unresolved concern from Kelm-Helgen’s tenure: bird collisions.
When the stadium was under construction, bird preservationists tried unsuccessfully to persuade the MSFA to take steps to mitigate bird deaths. An MSFA-sponsored two-year study is set to begin in March to track bird deaths through four migration seasons.
But Minneapolis Audubon chapter president Jerry Bahls and others used public comment time to plead for earlier action. They provided an eight-page summary of their own survey of bird casualties. By their assessment, U.S. Bank Stadium is the deadliest building in Minneapolis, owing to its mirror-like doors and walls.
From mid-August to early November, the group monitored bird deaths by walking around the stadium at certain hours. They photographed the dead or maimed birds.
During that period, 60 dead birds were found, with another 14 stunned on the ground. The next highest building has an average kill rate of 42 birds per migratory season, Bahls said.
The group renewed its plea that the MSFA install a film on the glass that birds would see and avert collisions. The board took no action.