- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb. 10

After suite misuse, rebuild public trust in stadium leadership

A four-hour hearing last Tuesday allowed Minnesota legislators to ask dozens of hard-hitting questions about the use of U.S. Bank Stadium luxury suites by the public facility’s governing board and executive director. But one important question regrettably went unaired: Why weren’t all members of the board in attendance?

The $1.1 billion stadium is a unique, expensive public resource. Taxpayers footed just under half its price tag. The five-member Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority board - consisting of three gubernatorial appointees and two Minneapolis mayoral appointees - has been entrusted by Minnesotans with stadium ownership, construction and operation. Yet when the stadium’s oversight is the subject of a sharply critical Office of the Legislative Auditor’s report, only Board Chair Michele Kelm-Helgen could be bothered to show up and face lawmakers?

The board members’ absence is even more frustrating considering their suite ticket giveaways to family and friends (excluding new appointee Kathleen Blatz) is what triggered the auditor’s report and the joint Minnesota House and Senate hearing. Revelations about the personal use of the two “Norseman” suites by board members, as well as by stadium executive director Ted Mondale, first surfaced in a Nov. 28 Star Tribune story by Rochelle Olson. Mondale, who is not a member of the board, did appear at the Tuesday hearing.

The story outraged Minnesotans and prompted Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles to conduct a special review. In a report last week, Nobles concluded that the suites’ use had not broken any state laws - mainly because pertinent statutes do not appear to apply to the board’s unusual publicprivate structure. But on Tuesday, Nobles testified that Kelm-Helgen, Mondale and board members had violated a “core ethical principle” by using their positions to obtain personal privileges for family and friends.

Marketing the stadium is a key justification given by Kelm-Helgen and Mondale for the suites’ use. The report concluded that only 29 percent of the 352 suite tickets available to them clearly had been used for this business purpose.

The board and Mondale have put in place a new suite-use policy, but Nobles’ office concluded the policy didn’t go far enough. Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, and other GOP lawmakers merit credit for introducing legislation to crack down harder.

Rosen’s bill is a good starting place to consider the stadium’s future oversight and that of other Minnesota’s sports facilities. The legislation only addresses U.S. Bank Stadium. But policy changes should include other facilities, such as Target Field, that have similar practices for suite use by its public authority. The bill also addresses personnel changes by calling to eliminate Kelm-Helgen’s position. Questions have long abounded about whether both Mondale and Kelm-Helgen are needed. This issue should be explored carefully in future hearings, with a focus on each executive’s duties and job performance, before a decision is made.

Debate over this duo’s future shouldn’t overshadow scrutiny of the board. Members’ absence at Tuesday’s hearing speaks volumes about their faulty sense of priorities. Not only did the board fail to rein in the ethical lapses, its members enthusiastically brought in friends and family. But when it came to time to face lawmakers, no one but Kelm-Helgen could make it. The weak excuse? The rest of the board members didn’t get a specific invitation.

If the current board’s five political appointees failed to add value, how would a seven-member board of mostly political appointees, as Rosen’s bill calls for, do so? Future hearings should dive into whether the board itself is necessary. Would it work simply to have one nonpolitical executive who relies on SMG, the private firm hired to manage stadium operations, and reports regularly to lawmakers and the governor?

It should be noted that Gov. Mark Dayton’s statement last week on this issue was unhelpful. He offered a shrill, partisan defense of Kelm-Helgen and Mondale, two prominent DFLers. Dayton needs to accept that the current stadium’s leadership has lost the public’s trust. He should be at the forefront of rebuilding it.


St. Cloud Times, Feb. 11

3 points on Trump’s travel order

Three points need to be made about President Donald Trump’s executive order barring entry to the United States by residents from seven countries - regardless of whether they are travelers, students, guest workers or refugees.

First, this board opposes the order for philosophical and factual reasons. Second, the process for determining the order’s validity is a textbook example of the brilliance of a checks-and-balances system. And third, from spirited public discussions to civil disobedience (but not violent protests), this is the way the First Amendment works. Be thankful these are our rights.

Biased, sloppy order

Unless Trump was lying during his campaign, and unless adviser Rudy Giuliani has done the same, it’s crystal clear the order is driven by religious bigotry. Trump said as much in his campaign, and Giuliani reiterated that in stating Trump asked him to craft a ban that would withstand legal challenges.

The only bigger tragedy than trying to hide such a spirit of bigotry in an executive order would be for the courts to somehow justify it.

Then, of course, there is the simple reality that the seven predominantly Muslim countries Trump listed - Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - are not considered serious terrorism threats. Note this information via FactCheck.org and several other sources:

- 154 foreign-born people were convicted of carrying out or attempting to carry out a terrorist attack from 1975 to 2015, most of them on or after Sept. 11, 2001. Only 17 of 154 foreign-born terrorists were from the countries Trump cited. None of those were responsible for fatal attacks.

- The seven countries combined represented almost 40 percent of all refugees accepted into the U.S. in the last 10 years.

- Trump’s order cites the 9/11 attacks three times. But none of the 9/11 hijackers came from the seven countries subjected to the travel ban. The CIA reports 15 were from Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates; one was from Egypt, and one was from Lebanon - all countries not impacted by the order.

Ultimately, there certainly is merit in making sure America’s vetting process of foreign nationals is solid. To be clear, though, invoking a ban without factual evidence that its targets pose threats does little to protect America from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States - which is the cornerstone of the order.

Checks and balances

The entire issue - Trump issuing the order, states filing lawsuits to stop it, court rulings, appeals courts rulings and more appeals and rulings - shows the brilliance of the checks and balances the founding fathers built by creating a government where power is spread among the executive, judicial and legislative branches.

Yes, it can be frustrating to have to wait for ruling after ruling while hearing politician after politician chime in with their views, to say nothing of the emotional toll such a battle takes on families affected by the order and resulting appeals and rulings.

Yet this checks-and-balances approach is invaluable because it keeps one branch from dominating government. Plus, don’t forget that no matter which side wins in the courts, the other side(s) can continue their cause by involving the legislative branch in drafting and adopting new laws. See also Roe v Wade, Citizens United and countless other cases.

Civil disobedience

Finally, just as the founders implemented checks and balances, they also gave Americans the right to peaceably assemble, to voice their opinions and, yes, to protest.

To be clear, there is no justification for violence and vandalism, and people must be held accountable for such actions. But civil disobedience - whether in the form of blocked freeways, marches on Washington or local rallies requiring a police presence - are as much a part of our democratic process as voting and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

To even think about impugning such actions because of costs or inconvenience to others is to devalue the fundamental principles upon which this nation was built - and for which countless fellow Americans have given their lives.


The Free Press of Mankato, Feb. 12

Education needed to sharpen attention

Although an imperfect solution, a bill being considered at the Minnesota Legislature that would ban hand-held cellphones brings to the light how big a concern distracted driving has become - and should be.

The proposed ban on hand-held cellphone use by drivers is meant to get them to pay more attention to driving and less to making calls, picking up calls and messing with other phone functions.

Clearly, until vehicles safely drive themselves, drivers need to pay less attention to mobile phones - and everything else that steals their attention from the road. Inattentive driving citations issued by the State Patrol, which include cellphone use and texting, grew from 4,659 citations in 2014 to 9,636 citations in 2016.

Traveling straight while a driver with a phone to his ear is attempting to make a left-hand turn is a nerve-racking experience - a traffic game of chicken sometimes. Not proven, however, is that the proposed law would effectively tackle the distracted driving problem.

Some experts say freeing up the hands isn’t the issue, which is clear to anyone who has driven a stick shift or quickly changed the car radio channel without mishap. Instead they say it’s the brain that needs to be freed up. That would mean no long conversations during rush hour, no eating, no online banking.

Texting, emailing and internet surfing while driving are already illegal in Minnesota.

How could you legislate everything you logically shouldn’t be doing in a moving vehicle?

All of the behaviors fall under distracted driving laws if they impede the driver’s performance and are already a punishable offense if law enforcement cites you. Lawmakers may want to take a closer look at increasing fines for distracted driving. Right now first offenders only pay a $50 fine and second-timers $250.

There should also be some concern that those who can’t afford hands-free devices will be singled out to be stopped more than those who have the newer, more expensive technology in their vehicles.

The proposed hands-free bill is well-intended and obviously brings to the forefront the need for much more education about the importance of eliminating distracted driving. Public information campaigns have trained many of us to fasten seat belts and not drink and drive.

Mobile phones are ubiquitous and will be for a very long time. It’s unlikely people will detach themselves from their use, even while driving. But constant and imaginative public education about the dangers of distracted driving can play a role in helping drivers make better choices.

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