Push to open Omaha arena board’s sealed records officially begins

Century Link Center in Omaha

Joe Jordan | Nebraska Watchdog

OMAHA—Call it the powerful arena board’s open secret.

Century Link Center in Omaha

For ten years the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority has operated in a legal shadow: When it comes to MECA the Nebraska Public Records Law does not apply.

The official push to change that is underway in Lincoln as the legislature goes back into session at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Following a series of reports by Nebraska Watchdog, State Sen. Brad Ashford has drafted a “sunshine” bill which is expected to be introduced by Sen. Ernie Chambers as early as today.

Why do some believe the 5-member Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority’s records should be open to the public?

For starters Omaha taxpayers shelled out $216 million for the $291 million MECA-run CenturyLink Center; $75 million came from private donors.

In addition Ashford notes that MECA receives a direct infusion of state funds—sales tax dollars known as ‘turnback financing.’

“That investment of state tax dollars justifies, without question, that the records…are available for inspection by the public, period,” says Ashford who served on the original MECA board.

One of the state’s key government watchdog groups also supports the bill.

“At the bare minimum it is time for the legislature to decide what kind of an organization MECA has become,” Jack Gould of Common Cause tells Nebraska Watchdog.

“Should millions in tax dollars flow into an organization that is not fully defined under Nebraska law and clearly lacks public oversight?

One set of records Ashford wants on the table was brought to light by Nebraska Watchdog’s recent investigation of former MECA member Jaime Gutierrez Mora.

Although she resigned in the face of a residency flap—she didn’t live in the city as she said she did—it was her janitorial company’s million dollar contract with MECA, a contract she maintained while on the board, that infuriated some members of the public.

Because MECA does not fall under the public records law she did not have to file a “Potential Conflict of Interest Statement” with the state, making her contract less visible.

During Nebraska Watchdog’s investigation MECA officials noted that Gutierrez Mora signed a copy of MECA’s own “Code of Business Ethics.”

When Nebraska Watchdog asked to see the copy she signed we were told “this is an internal corporate document and not available for public inspection.”

It appears likely the bill will have some exemptions dealing with competitive contracts, such as those for concerts when MECA is battling for acts with towns like Lincoln, Kansas City and Des Moines.

It’s not clear if MECA will fight the Chambers-Ashford bill.

Contact Joe Jordan at joe@nebraskawatchdog.org and listen to Joe every Monday morning at 7:40 on KFAB radio in Omaha.

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