Head of stadium agency calls pay dispute 'distraction'

Ted Mondale and Michele Kelm-Helgen
Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority executive director Ted Mondale and chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen sat together at an MSFA meeting in Minneapolis on March 27, 2015.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

A dispute over gender pay equity at the agency building the new Vikings stadium has sparked calls for the state to reform the governance of the state's stadium authority.

The Minnesota Sports Facility Authority was supposed to certify a gender pay balance for its 12 employees, as required by a 1984 state law. But a consultant hired to look at the agency's pay for the first time since 2012 found the agency was out of compliance — in part because of a pay difference of more than $35,000 between MSFA Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen and the agency's executive director, Ted Mondale.

Kelm-Helgen makes $127,000 annually, Mondale makes $162,245, according to the MSFA.

The difference sparked an extended and sharp debate among the MSFA commissioners during a meeting Friday. They ultimately split on a vote over whether to submit the report to the state's Minnesota Management and Budget agency.

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The matter is the first serious internal difference that's emerged in public among the five-member board charged with building the new stadium.

Kelm-Helgen called the issue "a big distraction" Friday. She said that she didn't take issue with her pay and that the stadium project continued to move ahead on budget and on schedule. She also said she'd offered to include a waiver with the report when it went to the state, declining any pay equity increases.

"Given the fact that we're a public body, given the fact that if we were looking at an equity adjustment, it would be a significant one — I don't want to take that right now, and I'm going to waive my right," Kelm-Helgen said.

She also noted the recent debate over significant raises offered by Gov. Mark Dayton to his commissioners. "We saw the legislators' anxiety about that," Kelm-Helgen said.

That, in turn, prompted a debate among the MSFA commissioners about the comparability of the work done by Kelm-Helgen and Mondale. The two serve as equals on a joint four-member stadium construction committee with the Vikings. Both handle contract negotiations and stadium oversight. But Kelm-Helgen said she is expected to oversee budget and policy matters, and serve as the public face of the agency. Mondale, she said, serves more as a day-to-day manager of the project.

Several commissioners said that the division of labor wasn't clear enough, and that the pay equity matter reflected that lack of clarity.

John Griffith, a former Target executive appointed to the MSFA by Dayton, said he would prefer a more traditional corporate model: a chair elected by the governing body of the agency, and a top-level manager hired by the board and accountable to the institution. He said that would align better with compensation.

"This issue is we should have one person doing one person's job," Griffith said. He said he'd like to see Kelm-Helgen less involved in the details of the stadium and focus on wider issues.

Commissioner Duane Benson, another Dayton appointee, also objected to the current structure. "This doesn't work well when it's done this way," said the former GOP legislator. "We're getting the job done, we're getting it done well. I just think it could be done better. It's not very efficient."

The debate echoes some of the criticism of the way the Metropolitan Council is run: As at the MSFA, the Met Council's chair is appointed by the governor and isn't accountable to his or her fellow members. The structure also gives the governor a great deal of authority in the agency's operations — even if indirectly.

But Kelm-Helgen said the MSFA isn't like other institutions, and is working as it is.

"We're not a corporation," she said. "This is a public body. I do believe the structure of us, having two of us — Ted Mondale as the executive director and myself as the chair — involved in this project, give us redundancy... and I always use the adage that no one of us is as smart as all of us."

It isn't clear whether the agency will recalculate the pay equity formula, submit the report with the existing gender disparity or find some other solution. MSFA spokesperson Jenn Hathaway said the authority will bring it up for reconsideration next month.