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Mondale joins U.S. Bank Stadium chairwoman in resigning over free suite admissions

Ted Mondale, left, and Michele Kelm-Helgen of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority attend an Oct. 3, 2013, meeting to approve construction of a Vikings stadium. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
This mid-2016 photo shows U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, which has become site of a disagreement about whether state officials who run the facility should be allowed to take family and friends to events. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL — Ethics discussions moved beyond the troubled U.S. Bank Stadium governing authority after its two top officials resigned.

While allowing family and friends into U.S. Bank Stadium free has been center of a controversy, the Thursday, Feb. 16, resignation of the facility's chairwoman and executive director spurred discussion about other venues, too. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said they would like to expand the freebie ban to other public facilities.

Besides professional venues, Anderson said she would like changes to apply to all state and city facilities. And, she said, she wants to "dig into" whether state-run colleges and universities should fall under the same rules.

The discussion came after Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority resigned Thursday morning, followed by Executive Director Ted Mondale announcing a few hours later that he, too, is leaving.

The resignations came after the two and others involved with the authority were criticized for allowing free use of two stadium suites by family and friends.

"As a public servant, most concerned about the public interest, it is apparent that I have become the focus of the legislation that is being considered," Kelm-Helgen said about bills to rework stadium governance. "Therefore, I believe it is in the public interest to remove myself from this discussion."

Kelm-Helgen, a former top Dayton aide and one-time legislative employee, said she will work until March 8.

Mondale, son of former Vice President Walter Mondale, said: "I feel good about my work, but it is time to move on."

An audit released last week shows more than 150 friends and family of stadium authority members and employees gained free access to the stadium. The authority had said it has two suites, used to market the stadium to possible clients, but in recent days it became known it had access to a third.

Kelm-Helgen, who makes $135,000 annually, said she is proud that the stadium has attracted the Super Bowl next year, along with other events such as the college basketball Final Four and X Games.

"Despite these successes, the ongoing discussion on the use of MSFA suites has become a distraction to marketing the stadium," she said.

Dayton said he did not ask Kelm-Helgen or Mondale to resign, but now that they have, the authority has a chance to reboot.

The governor said he "was totally surprised" by the resignations. But, he added, it became clear in the Republican-controlled House that lawmakers were not comfortable with authority leaders and that the ethics issue had taken over the authority.

It is important for the authority to put this issue behind it, he said, because the Super Bowl is to be held at the stadium in less than a year.

Dayton said he likely will appoint a new chairperson, even as lawmakers look at bills to change how the authority operates, including a plan to allow the governing board to pick its own leader.

Anderson's stadium reform bill, which her State Government Finance Committee passed 16-1 Thursday, does not expand the friends and family ban to other professional sports venues. However, in response to a Forum News Service question, she said the reform should apply to all state and city-owned facilities.

When asked about whether the reforms also should apply to state-run college and university facilities, she said he needs to look into that further.

Dayton urged lawmakers to "apply it to other public stadiums as well."

When asked for clarification, Dayton said he is especially interested in making sure all professional stadium authorities fall under the new law. However, he said, "I think you should look at the whole situation" at all stadiums.

Lawmakers and the governor established the facilities authority when they authorized the $1 billion stadium, half funded by public money. Each professional sports stadium is governed by its own body.

For Anderson, the problem was not just about suite use. She said the free admission "is just the tip of the iceberg."

The lawmaker alleges that the authority has made decisions to spend millions of dollars, when it is limited to a $250,000 cap. The authority fired back with a statement, however, saying Anderson made "false allegations" and it has followed all laws.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.