Lincoln arena lets public look behind the curtain; Omaha doesn’t

SUNLIGHT: Lincoln’s new arena is managed by a private company but overseen by a joint public agency, which is subject to the open records and meetings law, unlike Omaha’s arena.

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — There’s quite a show going on up the road at the CenturyLink Center Omaha. Not in the arena, but surrounding it.

It’s a controversy over just how transparent and open to the public the city’s arena, convention center and nearby ballpark should be, given they were built largely with public dollars and are owned by the city.

This is one show Lincoln won’t be getting. See, while the board that oversees those Omaha facilities does battle with the public and mayor over transparency issues, there are no such fireworks over Lincoln’s new Pinnacle Bank Arena, nor were there at the old Pershing Center.

That’s because while the $291 million CenturyLink Center is managed by a quasi-public board called the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, Lincoln’s $186 million Pinnacle Bank Arena is managed by a private company, SMG, and overseen by a joint public agency, the West Haymarket Joint Public Agency.

So while MECA isn’t subject to the state open records law, Lincoln’s JPA is. That’s enabled Nebraska Watchdog to examine issues such as the true number of Nebraska companies landing construction contracts, the number of big arena proponents landing those contracts, internal emails over whether the scope and budget of the project should grow, the amount of diesel still lurking underground near the arena, $600,000 spent to pigeon-proof a nearby bridge and how job projections are stacking up to reality.

Lincoln’s West Haymarket redevelopment is a public project, paid for with public dollars, and so virtually all records pertaining to the arena are public. So when reporters go sniffing around to see whether promises made to voters are being kept, they can get answers. And while city officials may not always be excited at the prospect, they hand over the records without complaint, stories are written, the public is informed — good, bad or ugly.

And then there’s Omaha. When MECA was formed its contract required it to comply with the open-meetings law, but not the open-records law. Hence you have reporters begging for scraps — earlier this year, Nebraska Watchdog was allowed to look at minutes of MECA meetings but not allowed to copy or photograph them.

The Omaha World-Herald was thrown a bone: The paper was given details on which MECA board members have been using the CenturyLink Center’s suite for free.

While Omaha reporters have to practically beg for information, Lincoln reporters are routinely granted a buffet. All JPA meetings are open the public. Its records, agendas and minutes are open to the public, complete with detailed background materials that can number into the hundreds of pages.

While plugging the West Haymarket project several years ago, Mayor Chris Beutler promised the project would be transparent and, minus a few hiccups along the way, it has been. Ask a question, any question, and you’ll get an answer.

But MECA board members fear that if the doors are flung open to their private suite, they’ll have to disclose “trade secrets.”

Pinnacle Bank Arena Manager Tom Lorenz of SMG said MECA is the equivalent of Lincoln’s JPA, although the JPA has the added layer of his company managing the arena as a private contractor. But in all his years managing Lincoln’s old and new arenas, he’s not run into problems where people wanted to see trade secrets – contracts with bands, for example.

Although he recently received a request to see a contract, he doesn’t think SMG is subject to the open records law – and even if it were, proprietary information is not required to be disclosed under the law.

“We both are concerned that the deals that we cut with the promoters and the bands… that those things are proprietary deals that we don’t want out there in the public,” Lorenz said of MECA.

The pressure on MECA to be more transparent mounted to the point where a bill was introduced in the Legislature this year that would have forced MECA into the sunshine. The bill, which didn’t get out of committee this year, was prompted by outrage after Nebraska Watchdog reported that a MECA board member’s company had a multimillion-dollar contract to clean the CenturyLink Center. Because MECA isn’t a public body, the board member wasn’t subject to conflict-of-interest disclosure laws.

The latest hullabaloo in Omaha is over how often MECA board members get free seats and suites to events at the arena and TD Ameritrade Park. The World-Herald reported board members used more than 270 free tickets to events during the past 15 months.

Asked whether Lincoln’s JPA board members have received free tickets and suite seats since the arena opened in August, the mayor’s office said the only time that’s happened was on the arena’s opening night, for a Michael Buble’ concert. Fourteen city employees who helped with the arena project used the suite.

Since then, the only people who have benefited from free use of the arena suite have been state senators who were invited by the city to attend two basketball games at a total cost of $840, according to Beutler aide Trish Owen. The cost was covered by rental fees other private parties have paid to use the suite for 11 events.

Earlier this year, Lorenz said he wished the city would use its suite more often, but city officials were wary of how that would play with the public. Sometimes the suite sit empty during events.

That’s because unlike in Omaha, from day one, Lincoln media has reported on who’s using the city suite, so every public official who used the suite knew full well their night in the suite might be reported. Apparently, most of them figured it wasn’t worth the publicity. Transparency tends to have that effect on people.

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org. Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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