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Request for Fergus Falls arena donors upheld

The city of Fergus Falls, Minn., should have turned over a list of contributors to a planned ice arena to The Forum, the state Commissioner of Administration said in a recent opinion.

The city of Fergus Falls, Minn., should have turned over a list of contributors to a planned ice arena to The Forum, the state Commissioner of Administration said in a recent opinion.

City officials say they cannot provide such a list because they do not have it. A private foundation is collecting pledges toward the project, which blends $3 million in donations and $4 million in taxpayer dollars. The foundation hasn't shared the identities of contributors - though an agreement with the city says it's supposed to do that each month.

In light of the opinion and a second Forum request for the names, the city asked the Fergus Falls 544 Education Foundation for the names this week.

"We're stuck between a rock and a hard place because we have no information to give you," said City Attorney Rolf Nycklemoe. "I just don't know what the city can do if they don't give it to us."

The Fergus Falls City Council approved the city-owned and operated arena last fall. Supporters said the project would tap the city's long hockey tradition to send a message of vibrancy to young families. Critics insisted city leaders should have put the spendy project to a public vote.


Residents will vote in November on a half-cent sales tax to finance the arena. If that fails, the city will levy a property tax.

Meanwhile, the Education Foundation has lined up more than $3 million, the bulk of it in nonbinding pledges. Some opponents of the project are concerned about the anonymity of would-be donors: If their pledges don't come through, taxpayers would cover the difference, they say.

Earlier this year, The Forum requested the names of contributors and the amounts of their pledges from both the foundation and the city. Kristi Hastings, the foundation's attorney, responded at the time that as a private entity, the group is not subject to the state's open record laws.

The city said it didn't have the information. It provided checks from the Education Foundation as well as from the White Bear Lake, Minn.-based Donald and Marie Roberts Charitable Foundation. Starting in December 2007, the nonprofit has given the city a total of $95,000 toward the arena.

"That's what we used for planning on the project," City Administrator Mark Sievert said.

The foundation's head, Scott Roberts, could not be reached, but in recent years, the foundation donated to several Fergus Falls organizations, such as Hillcrest Lutheran Academy and the Fergus Area College Foundation.

In order to obtain a list of arena donors, The Forum then appealed to the state commissioner of administration, Sheila Reger. In her opinion, she noted that when private groups contract with public entities to help them perform their functions, relevant documents are public data. She said the city should maintain that data or at least retrieve it when requested.

The commissioner's opinions are nonbinding, but a court must give deference to them.


Chuck MacFarlane, who heads the arena's fundraising committee, has said that most donors will get recognition down the road. This early in the process, the committee grants them anonymity to spare them from an onslaught of other requests for contributions, he has said.

The city's architects are redesigning the arena after bids for the project came in more than $3 million over budget earlier this month.

"In light of this, it seems premature to focus on donor identities," MacFarlane said.

Daryl Synstelien, a project critic, said the donors' anonymity has fostered mistrust about the project.

"Because of nondisclosure, there's a feeling among the public that a secret group of stakeholders is driving the actions of the City Council," he said.

Hastings will address the city's request. Nycklemoe said he forwarded the commissioner's opinion to Hastings: "I assume they'll turn it over."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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