Lawsuits look to ask voter approval for Vikings stadium funding deal

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Stadium opponents including David Sweet, at left, and C.J. "Occupirate" Sparrow flanked Doug Mann (at microphone) as he talked about his legal challenge to the Vikings stadium deal. (MPR Photo/Tim Nelson)

It's been one of the remaining contradictions in the Vikings stadium deal. Sixteen years after voters in Minneapolis said they wanted a referendum on any new stadium funding, the city is poised to get a second professional sports facility, without a public vote.

But now, two Twin Cities residents are challenging the deal with the Minnesota Vikings to build the "People's Stadium" in Minneapolis. Both say the stadium should have been put to a vote by taxpayers before the state and the city committed nearly half a billion dollars to the deal.

"I want our public officials to follow the law," said Doug Mann. He's a Minneapolis nurse, Green Party mayoral candidate and  school board challenger. He represented himself before a Hennepin County District Court judge this morning, saying the city should put the stadium issue up for a vote this fall. "I think that a lot of people have been convinced by the propaganda that this is all a done deal, and you can't fight city hall."

Mann is doing just that. He's asking for a writ of mandamus from Hennepin County District Court Judge Phillip Bush.

But City Hall is fighting back.

Deputy Minneapolis city attorney Peter Ginder made the case for the city today. He said:

  • State lawmakers gave the Minneapolis city council the authority to bypass the city charter for the Vikings stadium dealt question.

  • The state constitution allows so-called special laws, like laws that apply to just one city, to be approved either by city voters or by the governing body of a local unit of government. The Minneapolis city council voted 7 to 6 in May 2012 to approve a plan to contribute $150 million for the stadium construction.

  • State-authorized and state-collected hospitality taxes, not city funds, will pay for the stadium.


"Even without the override, this would not have triggered a referendum requirement, because of the definition in the statutes about what is a local resource. It would not have been a resource under the city charter and it would not have triggered a referendum requirement either" Ginder said.

The judge noted that the stadium plan, signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, expressly exempted the city from a referendum on the deal.

Mann also conceded in court today that the Legislature has the authority to repeal laws, including a city charter provision. That could make it tough to win his case.

But it may be a moot point, anyway. The city's general election is just 77 days away. County elections manager Ginny Gelms says any referendum language has to be finalized and submitted by this Friday to qualify for the Nov. 5th ballot. It's unlikely Mann's case will be decided by then: the judge left the case open through Monday for more written arguments.

And there's another deadline looming. The state may sell stadium bonds and break ground on the new stadium yet this fall. That would make the stadium deal financially difficult to unwind, particularly with a 2014 general election. The Metrodome may be demolished by the time voters go to the polls to vote on a new stadium, if the issue is put before them.

City council member Cam Gordon was at the hearing today. He opposed the deal when it was in front of the Council last year, but said that he doesn't know that a voter referendum would necessarily kill the deal. "Right now, I think it might pass," he said. He cited the extensive design work, discussion and financing already in place, and said he thought voters might just decide it's a "done deal."

All that said, there is another  legal challenge waiting in the wings. Paul Johnson, a retired railroad cop from Blaine has filed suit against the state, saying voters in Minneapolis should weigh in. He lives near another site in Arden Hills that was considered for the stadium and says the state shouldn't have nixed a 2011 deal between the Vikings and Ramsey County for that site because officials feared they'd lose a ballot question on sales taxes in the deal.

Johnson says the two cases create a double standard for stadium referendums that isn't fair: "Waive it for Arden Hills like you did in Minneapolis. And if you don't want to waive it for Ramsey County, don't waive it for Minneapolis."

He says he'll be making his case to a judge in St. Paul on Sept. 19th.