Ramsey County panel's decision on Vikings stadium could pose unprecedented issues

This week, Roseville resident Vivek Iyer stood before the Ramsey County Charter Commission -- one of the least-known appointed bodies in the state -- and called its 17 members the "last line of defense" between taxpayers and "a powerful special i...

This week, Roseville resident Vivek Iyer stood before the Ramsey County Charter Commission -- one of the least-known appointed bodies in the state -- and called its 17 members the "last line of defense" between taxpayers and "a powerful special interest group" otherwise known as the Minnesota Vikings.

From the perspective of stadium opponents, he might be right.

The Vikings' stadium proposal has the potential for a three-way collision among the Legislature, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners and the charter commission. The clash could raise questions about the legal and political authority of each body -- issues that some charter commission members say might only be decided by the courts.

Ramsey County is Minnesota's only county with a home-rule charter, a form of government by the people also operating in such cities as Minneapolis and St. Paul. The charter commission is charged with protecting the charter, the county's constitution of sorts.

Its members may soon learn the extent of their powers.


The charter commission is considering whether to use its authority to ask voters on the November 2012 to decide a new charter rule blocking the proposed 0.5 percent countywide sales tax for the proposed $1.1 billion stadium in Arden Hills.

Iyer certainly hopes the commission decides to place the question on the ballot. The Roseville management consultant, who joined dozens of people Wednesday at a public hearing on the proposed ballot language, was

following in his mind a series of "ifs."

If the stadium deal survives negotiations with Gov. Mark Dayton and makes it to lawmakers or the seven-member county board, the ballot process might be stadium tax opponents' only recourse.

With a ballot question hanging over their heads -- even a year out -- state lawmakers might have incentive to postpone a decision. Some might fear a public backlash. Others might consider the possible legal action resulting from a deal: Could the Legislature simply block the public referendum process once it's scheduled and in motion? Could the county board do the same?

And would a public vote next year to ban county sales tax revenue from funding professional sports teams have the power to defund payments to the Vikings stadium already in progress?

The answers to those questions aren't entirely clear. The Legislature authorized the creation of charter counties and charter cities. It stands to reason that lawmakers -- perhaps -- would have final say over the extent of their authority.

What little is clear is that the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners alone could not stop a ballot question from moving forward or overrule one once it's been approved by voters, at least not without legislative help.


The current draft of the stadium legislation states that the bill "supersedes all land use and development rules and restrictions and procedures imposed by other law, charter, or ordinance."

However, an article in the Minnesota Constitution indicates that county residents can vote to invalidate special laws imposed upon them by the Legislature.

"The Legislature may enact special laws relating to local government units," it reads, "but...any special law may be modified or superseded by a later home rule charter or amendment applicable to the same local government unit."

In other words, it's possible that a ballot referendum in November 2012 might be able to undo a countywide tax if it's imposed by the Legislature and the Ramsey County board.

But even some diehard stadium foes are skeptical.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance notes in its materials: "It is unclear that the referendum available to voters...would be able to roll back the sales tax ordinance once it is already in place, that is, enacted before November 2012."

Darwin Lookingbill, the former lead attorney for the Ramsey County attorney's civil division, said it's unlikely but not impossible for a county to overrule the Legislature.

"That's a tricky question," Lookingbill said. "I think it would all depend on how the legislation is written."


"The bottom line is the Legislature can always trump the charter commission," he said. "The Legislature granted Ramsey County the authority to make a charter."

Charter commission chairman Richard Sonterre declined to speculate Thursday on whether the 17 members would call for a public ballot, as a second public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 11 at the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul.

On June 8, however, the charter commission passed a resolution, 10-3, stating that the body "values the right of the people to choose by referendum and would oppose any effort to circumvent the referendum process present in the Ramsey County Charter."

Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172.

There are a lot of ifs on the way to a new Minnesota Vikings stadium. If Gov. Mark Dayton, key state lawmakers and the Vikings iron out the details on a stadium package, the deal would then go before the Legislature for approval.

If that happens, and if lawmakers pass the package, it will likely include language sidestepping the provision in state law that would allow Ramsey County taxpayers the right to vote on whether to adopt a new countywide sales tax to help fund the $1.1 billion stadium in Arden Hills.

The stadium package would then go to the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners. Just four of the board's seven members would need to approve the 0.5 percent sales tax -- a nickel on every $10 purchase -- for the revenue stream to become law.

As of now, it appears stadium supporters have their four votes. County Commissioners Tony Bennett and Rafael Ortega crafted the original deal with the Vikings, and Commissioners Jan Parker and Jim McDonough have both gone on record as saying they support the plan. Commissioners Victoria Reinhardt and Janice Rettman are opposed, and Commissioner Toni Carter said this week she is waiting to see the details before deciding.


Even a 4-3 vote would leave the Vikings clear to proceed with a publicly financed stadium -- including $300 million from the state and $350 million from Ramsey County -- except perhaps for the matter of the Ramsey County ballot question.

Dayton is waiting for the Metropolitan Council to finish a study of the Arden Hills site -- due in mid-October -- before deciding whether to call a special session of the Legislature to take up the stadium.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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