Activist’s lawsuit causes heartburn but faces very long odds
After Minneapolis activist Doug Mann’s court challenge to the new Vikings stadium forced yet another postponement of a critical bond sale, state officials, project boosters and more than a few bellicose Vikings fans wasted no time in deriding Mann as a frivolous publicity hound.
In the state’s legal response, however, Mann’s suit is characterized less as a stunt than an act of financial vandalism, one that was precisely timed to inflict maximum damage. In a 12-page memorandum filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court, the state Department of Management and Budget grimly warned that any further delay could “perhaps fatally affect the financing and construction of the project.”
Less dire impacts listed include a potential increase in costs triggered by rising interest rates, complications in the closings on stadium-related downtown real estate deals, and even the possibility that the new facility won’t be ready for the projected 2016 opening date.
Even more pressing, Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), said that about $28 million in stadium-related bills are due at the end of the month, a tab the agency intended to settle with bond proceeds.
As the drama — or was it a farce? — played out, one big question went unasked: Is the stadium deal, crafted by leading political figures with the assistance of top-dollar attorneys, really so fragile that the whole thing could be knocked off the rails as a consequence of a last-minute pro se legal filing from an unemployed nurse with virtually no legal training?
Mann vs. The Man
In a telephone interview, Mann, who scrounged to raise the filing fee and drafted his own writ after consulting friends, was not sympathetic to the MSFA’s poor mouthing, especially after the authority asked that Mann be required to post a $49 million surety bond should his case proceed.
“The stadium authority has written checks and made commitments to pay people based on funds that they don’t have,” Mann said.
He said he decided to take his long-odds legal shot against the stadium deal because he thought Minneapolis residents were wrongly deprived the right to vote on the matter — and also because no one else bothered.
“I was surprised. I was under the assumption that someone in the political or legal establishment would challenge this thing, but that didn’t happen,” said Mann. He attributed that inaction to the widespread view among stadium foes that you can’t fight city hall, not a lack of opposition.
“If that kind of mood prevailed in the American colonies, there would have been no War of Independence,” Mann said. “Sometimes you have to fight even if the odds are astronomically against you. Sometimes the enemy has to be engaged even if you are going to lose the battle.”
A nurse by training, Mann has a long history of activism that he traces to the early 1960s, when his parents participated in voter-registration drives in Mississippi. He once self-published a memoir about his workplace rabble-rousing (“Diary of a Nursing Home Agitator”) and, in the 1990s, was involved in high-profile litigation over racial disparities in the Minneapolis schools. Last year, Mann ran in the mayoral race in Minneapolis and he is currently mounting his ninth race for the city’s school board.
After a Hennepin County judge dismissed an earlier stadium-related lawsuit (in which Mann sued the Minneapolis City Council on the grounds that city residents were legally entitled to a stadium referendum), he decided to go after the financing mechanism. Under a provision of the state constitution, Mann argues that the city can’t raise sales taxes to pay off a state-issued debt.
He drafted his writ with the input of his fellow plaintiffs, Linda Mann (his wife) and David Tilsen, a former chair of the Minneapolis School Board. Mann believes the constitutional case is stronger than the referendum lawsuit. But he said he is reserving the right to pursue the first case all the way to the state Supreme Court — another potential headache for the Department of Management and Budget.
Response at the Capitol
State Sen. Sean Nienow, a persistent and often prescient critic of the stadium deal, said he couldn’t pass judgment on the legal merits of Mann’s claims. “I’m not a lawyer, I just write laws,” Nienow said.
But Nienow disputed the assertion that Mann’s suit is patently frivolous. “He raises a legitimate question: Can the state take on hundreds of millions of dollars of debt and base the repayment on non-state revenue? And judging from the response of the [Dayton] administration, it seems to have a semblance of legitimacy. Delaying the bond sale was no small decision, so, obviously, the lawyers are not looking at this as completely specious.”
It is highly unlikely the stadium deal could fall apart at this stage, Nienow said. But were that to happen, he added, it would “absolutely” be beneficial for Minnesota, as it would give lawmakers a chance to craft more realistic funding mechanisms and negotiate a bigger contribution from the Vikings.
State Sen. Dave Thompson, another prominent stadium critic at the Capitol, was more guarded in his response to Mann’s lawsuit, which he had not examined. Regardless, Thompson expected the legal issues will be resolved in a hurry. “My guess is that with a public project, a very high-profile public project, the courts will make this decision quickly,” Thompson said.
Still, he expects that lawmakers will once again wade in the thickets of stadium law — possibly as soon as the Legislature reconvenes — because “there is a very good chance that we’re going to have a funding shortfall.”
An outsider’s perspective
Blogger Neil deMause, who has been covering the politics and economics of pro sports stadiums since the 1990s (and chronicles them on his blog Field of Schemes), said he is highly skeptical about the state’s claim that a delay in the bond sale — or even an unlikely court victory from Doug Mann — could have a fatal impact on the project.
“Complicated development deals get delayed all the time,” deMause said. “This is a very large project with a lot of moving parts. I would be very surprised to see the people behind it blow it up over a delay of a few weeks. There is way too much at stake.”
Asked how the Vikings stadium saga compares to those he has examined in other cities, deMause laughed and then channeled the Russian author Leo Tolstoy: “All unhappy stadium deals are unhappy in their own way.” And what is unique about the Vikings deal?
“Where the Vikings deal is breaking new ground is the degree to which the financing plan was slipshod. It was come up with quickly and it now seems like every piece of the puzzle that can fall apart has,” deMause said. “Everyone knows this is a mess. It’s a laughing stock.”