The two highest-profile public officials on the U.S. Bank Stadium oversight commission stepped down Thursday amid growing legislative and public pressure over their use of two luxury suites to host friends, family and political allies at games and concerts.
Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), announced her resignation early in the day, saying the decision was her own. By early afternoon, Executive Director Ted Mondale resigned rather than face an impending vote to remove him.
The departures came as state legislators move to overhaul the MSFA’s structure, claiming lax management and oversight by the pair. Gov. Mark Dayton, who had been supportive of the two, said their resignations would “enable the authority to move ahead and, hopefully, allow everyone to regain perspective” on the stadium.
The DFL governor praised Mondale and Kelm-Helgen for “commendable” and “exceptional” work and pledged to work with legislators on the future of the MSFA.
“Everybody’s still kind of taking stock of what’s occurred” in the past 24 hours, Dayton said.
Mondale and Kelm-Helgen faced cascading criticism and scrutiny since the Star Tribune reported in November that they and other MSFA commissioners hosted friends, family and well-connected DFLers at two 18-person luxury suites at the stadium during Vikings games and at several concerts. The two said the state-owned suites were needed to market the building, but an investigation by Legislative Auditor James Nobles revealed the suites were used mostly for entertainment by the MSFA commissioners and staff.
At a four-hour joint hearing on the release of Nobles’ report last week, Mondale and Kelm-Helgen faced hours of blunt questions from Republicans who didn’t buy their explanations.
Dayton said he didn’t ask for either resignation. But supporting them grew politically difficult after a House committee voted 17-1 to support a bill to reshape the MSFA, with all but one DFL lawmaker joining Republicans in support.
Kelm-Helgen was appointed by Dayton, so he had the authority to remove her. Mondale, however, could have been fired by a vote of the four remaining MSFA commissioners — and a movement was afoot to do so.
Removal was coming
Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, appointed in January to the MSFA, said she spoke with fellow board members Thursday and the plan was to vote to remove Mondale as soon as possible.
“I didn’t think we should wait,” Blatz said. “Our No. 1 goal has got to be to build public trust and confidence.”
The other three commissioners have been in place for at least a year, and also used the suites themselves for friends and family. They are Tony Sertich, Bill McCarthy and Barbara Butts Williams.
Three Republican legislators were leading a push to retool the MSFA’s composition. One of them, Rep. Sarah Anderson of Plymouth, argued a clean sweep was necessary. “I don’t know why you would want to continue with an operation where there’s a culture of not doing things right,” Anderson said.
Their proposal would overhaul the structure of the MSFA, and eliminate the paid position Kelm-Helgen had been occupying. It would also slash the executive director’s salary. The board would grow to seven members from five, and would be appointed by legislative leaders from both parties as well as the governor and the Minneapolis mayor.
Anderson also repeatedly said the suites were just the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of questionable management of the stadium. She charged that the board had illegally given Kelm-Helgen and Mondale authority to enter contracts above $200,000 without board approval.
The action was taken in a public meeting, but Anderson said the board had no authority to convey that power. MSFA spokeswoman Jenn Hathaway issued a written response saying the allegations are “untrue, inaccurate, and must be based on a misunderstanding.”
The statement said Anderson falsely claimed the MSFA wasn’t aware of changes made by Mondale and Kelm-Helgen. The votes are on the board’s website and board members were briefed on all actions between monthly meetings, Hathaway wrote.
Nobles’ 100-page report faulted Kelm-Helgen and Mondale’s leadership of the MSFA, saying they had violated a core ethical principle by using public office for personal gain, by handing out free tickets, VIP parking, food and drink to friends and allies.
Combined, the two made nearly $300,000 in taxpayer-funded salaries. They oversaw construction of the $1.1 billion stadium, which was funded in part with a $498 million public subsidy.
Even before the suite usage blew up, an unclear division of duties between Mondale and Kelm-Helgen became an issue. Former authority members Duane Benson and John Griffith had questioned the need for two taxpayer-funded executives in similar roles. They also raised concerns about Kelm-Helgen’s lack of collaboration.
“We were on a board that had an inability to get information,” Benson said, adding that Kelm-Helgen also refused to let the board participate in her job reviews.
Benson, a former Republican state legislator, said that “good governance really has a value. It’s not a sexy topic, but it produces.”
In her resignation statement, Kelm-Helgen wrote that “it is apparent that I have become the focus of the legislation that is being considered. Therefore, I believe it is in the public interest to remove myself from this discussion. I want to be clear that this is my decision, and my decision alone.”
In his resignation, Mondale said, “I feel good about my work, but it is time to move on.”
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson