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Two breaches of public trust getting judicial scrutiny

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Two Hennepin County district court judges in three separate opinions have ruled that the Minneapolis City Council has no authority to maintain and operate the Commons Park adjacent to US Bank Stadium.

Ever since our nation evolved into a two-party system, we have relied upon the parties keeping a watchful eye on each other and a vigilant media focusing on both. America’s major scandals — Teapot Dome under President Warren G. Harding, Watergate under President Richard Nixon and today’s impeachment investigation — all fit this pattern.

This system of partisan oversight fails to protect the public when the public misdeeds involve both political parties. In our hyper-partisan world both the public and the media look away when both parties are complicit and silent. This is precisely the case with two serious breaches of the public trust that will be before the Minnesota Court of Appeals this week.

On Oct. 23 in Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy v. PolyMet, the Minnesota Court of Appeals will hear arguments on the continuation of a stay in the issuance of a permit for a sulfide mine proposed for Hoyt Lakes. The request for a stay followed the discovery of alleged malfeasance by MPCA officials by withholding critical health data and the acquisition of PolyMet by Glencore, a Swiss company with annual revenues of $219 billion. A temporary stay was granted by the court on Sept. 18 based upon MCEA’s research showing a similarity of the projects’ proposed tailings dam to a tailings dam in Brazil that collapsed, killing 300 people. The court stated that the new evidence “raises serious, justifiable concerns.”

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Former Gov. Arne Carlson
On Oct. 24, the Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in Hayden and Ostrow v. City of Minneapolis, Two Hennepin County district court judges in three separate opinions have ruled that the Minneapolis City Council has no authority to maintain and operate the Commons Park adjacent to US Bank Stadium. Nonetheless, the City Council has continued to operate and maintain the rent-free space, purchased by the city for $20 million for the benefit of the Vikings, at public expense, pursuant to an unlawful agreement. The Court of Appeals will consider whether the citizens of Minneapolis have “standing” – the right to sue – to nullify this agreement.

These scandals involve extraordinarily wealthy individuals or corporations with a history of financial misdeeds receiving special consideration without any serious vetting process. Vikings owner Zygi Wilf was fined $32 million for violating racketeering laws in New Jersey. Glencore has been investigated throughout the world for money laundering, corrupt practices, financial exploitation and bribery.

One would assume that if public officials choose to enter into agreements under these circumstances, they would go to extraordinary lengths to protect the public. Sadly, that is not the case. Neither the City of Minneapolis nor the state Legislature has engaged in any meaningful oversight of stadium expenditures. Meanwhile the Legislature appears to be washing its hands of the PolyMet permit process, refusing to hold public hearings or to investigate.

Both projects were launched with false promises. According to then-Gov. Mark Dayton, the stadium was be the “people’s stadium” and would be built “without using a single dollar of general fund tax dollars.” In the end, the public picked up almost the entire cost, approximately $1.5 billion once the added costs for infrastructure are included. Once seat licenses and revenue streams were considered, Zygi Wilf did not need to open his checkbook.

PolyMet was to be environmentally safe, create over 350 mining jobs, and impose no financial burden on Minnesotans. That was the promise. Now, thanks to a whistleblower, we’ve learned that the permitting process was allegedly corrupted by our own Pollution Control Agency officials who may have withheld vital health data from the public during the public hearing process. Sadly, there has not been any investigation by the governor, the attorney general, or the Legislature. There are no job or wage guarantees, troubling given the increasing use of robots in mining operations. The proposed permit provides little or no financial recourse for the public to recover environmental cleanup costs or to indemnify the public if something like the tragic dam collapse in Brazil occurs in Minnesota.

Paul Ostrow
MinnPost file photo by Jana Freiband
Paul Ostrow
Policymakers and appointed officials have shown too much disdain for the rule of law. The Minneapolis City Council’s disregard for its own charter in 2012 made the Vikings stadium project possible. The council voted at that time to ask the Legislature to override a charter amendment launched by their constituents to require a public vote before more than $10 million  in city funds could be used for a stadium. The current price tag for the city is $600 million and continuing to rise. The City Council consented to the Commons Park Use Agreement requiring the City Council to operate and maintain the park in February 2014 despite a court ruling in December 2013 telling the City Council it had no authority to operate or maintain parkland. And, assuming the allegations over the PolyMet permitting process are proven, what could be more contemptuous of the rule of law than MPCA staff directing people to make comments orally but not in writing to hide health concerns from the public record?

The simple fact is that elected leaders from both parties at both the state and city levels have stonewalled the public by refusing to allow public hearings, not answering valid questions and not providing appropriate information.

The anger level is rising to the point where some citizens like Tom Berkelman, a highly respected former DFL legislator from Duluth, want the consideration of Initiative and Referendum. This was a major reform of the progressive movement led by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt Woodrow Wilson. The goal was to wrest control from the powerful interests that were dominant and give it to the people. Currently 27 states have some form of this check on government.

Initiative and a Referendum may well be the answer. But, in the meantime, we must insist that all major contracts be automatically processed through public hearings by the appropriate elected governing body. We also must demand that our public officials comply with the law – without the need for courts to order them to do so.

Arne Carlson is a former governor of Minnesota (1991-1999). Paul Ostrow is a former president of the Minneapolis City Council.


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Comments (36)

  1. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/22/2019 - 08:23 am.

    On a much smaller scale and price tag, the renaming of Lake Calhoun falls into the exact same category.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/22/2019 - 09:43 am.

      Really??? And just how did that line the pockets of wealthy and powerful elites???

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/22/2019 - 10:21 am.

      Yes. The lake had a name for a long time, and then they renamed it after Calhoun – a terrible guy with little connection to Minnesota. We can all now be glad that this has been corrected and the rightful name restored.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/22/2019 - 10:40 am.

      Frank, I said, “on a much smaller price tag”. Try to follow along.

      Pat, so it’s OK to disregard the law if it gets you the result you like? You should apply for a job in the current administration. They have plenty of openings and you’ll fit right in.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/22/2019 - 12:26 pm.

        Ok. What semi-wealthy interests financially benefited from taking Calboun’s name off the lake?

        • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/24/2019 - 08:25 am.

          The story is about breaches of public trust, which occurred when an illegal process was used to rename the lake. You want to make it about enriching the wealthy. The cost is to redo street signs, maps, etc.which I said was far less than a stadium.

          Pat, so you’re going with the “two wrongs make a right” position? Most of us learned in childhood that was a losing argument.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/22/2019 - 01:56 pm.

        I agree. It was terrible the way they disregarded the law to change the original name to Calhoun. Glad to see things are being set right.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/22/2019 - 09:52 am.

    I hate to say it Arne but the Twins Stadium and Timber Wolves arena are just smaller scale Viking’s stadiums. It’s nice to recognize the public betrayal these stadium project represent, if a little late in doing so.

    Thanks for the article though, I can’t disagree with a single word.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/22/2019 - 10:23 am.

    What utter nonsense.

    Anyone who thinks initiative and referendum is a way to circumvent powerful interests must be completely ignorant about California the last 40 years.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 10/22/2019 - 03:06 pm.

      Except in many of those cases, it was the voters first taking action vs acting upon what was believed to be an illegal process.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/22/2019 - 05:01 pm.

      I wouldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Initiative and referendum are two different things, and come in different forms. California has the worst kind of initiative, which allows any special interest group that can garner enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot and have that measure become a difficult to repeal or even amend law. Other states have a more “moderate” version, which allows bills to be introduced in the Legislature by initiative. The bill is debated and voted on like any other piece of legislation.

      Some states (e.g. Colorado) have a kind of referendum that amounts to a “people’s veto” of bills. If voters get enough signatures on a petition, a law passed by the Legislature is placed on the ballot for final approval by the voters.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/23/2019 - 08:43 am.

        I would dismiss it out of hand.

        An initiative that results in the introduction of a bill is worthless. And while Colorado doesn’t have the number of ballot issues, the result is the same. Its a veto by wealthy interests. No candidates to hold accountable – just unregulated spending and fact-free claims. Its a Citizen’s United on steroids.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 10/23/2019 - 07:11 am.

      Yes, i do believe initiative and referendum are useful. It would have stopped DFL hacks who gifted the Vikings ownership a multi billion stadium. Such initiatives and referendums would also work in checking School Board hackery that costs the state millions.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/23/2019 - 09:42 am.

        Dude, professional sports stadiums are very much a bi-partisan scam in this state and across the county. Pawlenty let tje tax payers in Hennepin County pay for Pohlad Park.

  4. Submitted by Adam Miller on 10/22/2019 - 10:35 am.

    It doesn’t feel much like the Commons is “operated for the benefit of the Vikings.” Feels a lot more like it’s operated for the benefit of Wells Fargo.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 10/22/2019 - 10:39 am.

    Hats off, everyone, to Arne and Paul for saying so well what needs to be said.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/22/2019 - 10:55 am.

    Keeping Pat Terry’s comment in mind, I’d nonetheless like to see some meaningful effort made to hold a variety of people’s feet to the fire. If initiative and referendum aren’t workable, then some other method is either available, or ought to be devised, to punish malfeasance by people who’ve been elected to guard the public trust, and have either failed to do so, or have betrayed that trust outright. In the case of sports facilities, both elected and appointed officials have betrayed that trust on multiple occasions. Paul Udstrand is also on-target about Target Field and the Timber Wolves arena, but perhapa a statute of limitations is involved in those cases (I wasn’t here for the origins of the baseball and basketball intrigues). Major league sports can be – and too often are – just as corrupt as any back room gambling den.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/23/2019 - 08:45 am.

      That mechanism is the Court system, which is being used in this case. If the claims they are making are correct, they will prevail in Court.

  7. Submitted by Mike Hogan on 10/22/2019 - 03:40 pm.

    Not meant to be inflammatory, but does the Minneapolis City Council even have the skills, abilities, or wherewithal to “engage in any meaningful oversight of stadium expenditures?”

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/22/2019 - 08:05 pm.

    Well done…..but something at the time of the occurrence of this boondoggles would have been helpful. I wonder what the connection if any to the baby balloon model visit there is to these forces ? The dots would be Jeff Johnson, Glen Taylor and Target Center administrative organization ? Please let us know.

  9. Submitted by Mark Voorhees on 10/23/2019 - 08:30 am.

    I realize the team and stadium are two different entities. But when we (city or state) put up the funding to build a new facility, we should get some money back when the team is sold. We increased the value of the team and we should get a return on our investment.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 10/23/2019 - 03:36 pm.

      There is a return on investment – income taxes on $200M of NFL payroll. That’s nearly $20M a year that goes away if the team moves. Probably not a great return but not zero.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/29/2019 - 01:37 pm.

        That $20 million figure comes from a garbage analysis produced by a Viking PR front that went by the name of: Home Team Advantage back in 2012. The actual figure according to RSM McGladrey was $12 million. This comes nowhere near even paying the debt service on the $500 million in public dollars that went into the stadium. To put $12 or even $20 million dollars into perspective, MN collected $11 BILLION dollars in income tax revenue in 2017. If all the Viking players stopped paying MN income taxes it would have zero effect on our budget, and we wouldn’t have a billion public dollars sunk into a stadium for a NJ billionaire.

  10. Submitted by Mark Voorhees on 10/23/2019 - 08:32 am.

    And thank you again for writing this article. There was too much of the Polymet permit process that was kept out of the public’s eye.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/23/2019 - 08:23 pm.

    Any wonder why governemnt etc. is so expensive? That vote by the elected to get around the people vote for the stadium was pretty sad, ugly from the right and probably more ugly from the left. Heard all the excuses, best one was if we let the people vote they will vote it down and that was from our screaming lefty county commissioner. Yep so much for the voice of the people through representation.

  12. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/24/2019 - 09:27 am.

    Sorry folks, these are civic amenities that we will not live without as demonstrated by every community that loses a professional sports team soon goes out as spends whatever is needed to get another back; That is the simple reality of the situation.

    It is not left/right or Dem/Rep. Look at the funding for Met Stadium, The Metrodome, Target Center (Minneapolis purchase), Xcel, TCF, Target Field and US Bank: public officials of every stripe have their fingerprints all over these facilities because they all know the only thing worse than building one of these things is losing a team due to not building one. Arne Carlson knows this better than almost all.

    And because of the lose/lose nature of this it is not surprising that things like the Commons Park area issue arise: “We gotta get it done, figure it out…”.

    Time to move on. Look on the bright side: They’re all newly built/updated right now. Oh, wait, sorry: We do need that new Velodrome…

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/27/2019 - 09:54 am.

      I don’t think anyone wants to re-debate the stadiums but this myth of amenities has be dispelled. No city NEEDS professional sports as an amenity. You can go to hundreds of very famous and successful cities all over the US and the World that don’t have pro-sport stadiums and arena’s dominating their urban cores, or downtown areas. Should we “lost” a pro-sports team for some reason, we can live without them indefinitely.

      Furthermore, these are NOT public amenities, these are profit centers for billionaire owners that deliver incredibly narrow and focused economic revenue to single families at the expense of hundreds of thousands of taxpayers. These are not public spaces, they are private property.

  13. Submitted by Alan Muller on 10/29/2019 - 10:34 am.

    Excellent piece. It was these two episodes, the Wilfare stadium and the Polymet permitting corruption, that taught me to doubt the integrity of government in Minnesota. One might add the giant giveaway to Mayo (“Destination Medical Center”) that didn’t include a dime for improved health care for Minnesotans.

    No wonder so many people are angry and alienated: They may not think things through analytically, but they have a sense of smell.

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