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Irving’s Mayor and City Council Get VIP Treatment at Toyota Music Factory

A previously unreported part of the city's lease with the venue calls for seven premium tickets to each event and thousands of dollars in food and drink each month.

A month ago, I wrote about which Dallas City Council members were using VisitDallas’ suite at American Airlines Center. Well, first I complained that the city wouldn’t tell us who was using it, and then the city told us it was southern Dallas council member Casey Thomas and former West Dallas member Monica Alonzo—so I wrote about that. Soon after, I got a fun email about an adjacent situation in Irving.

One request for city records later, I’ve come to realize a few things. The city of Irving’s deal with the Toyota Music Factory gives it seven premium seats to every Live Nation event held at the Pavilion, the mixed-use development’s outdoor concert venue. The mayor, Rick Stopfer, gets first dibs on four of them. The city’s seven attendees also get a $12,500 monthly bar tab to spend via servers who swing by their seats. And Stopfer has a live music habit that would put the most seasoned festival-goer to shame.

In July, Toyota Music Factory hosted Coheed and Cambria, Jill Scott, Young the Giant with COIN, PRETTYMUCH, The Head and the Heart, Chaka Khan and Michael McDonald, Rock the Yacht, The Try Guys, Caravana Del Amor, Yes, Third Eye Blind, $UICIDEBOY$, and Alice Cooper and Halestorm. Stopfer received at least four tickets to all 13 shows.

According to a list of the ticket distribution, in the two years the venue has been open, the mayor has attended 148 events in all.

Initially set to be the Irving Music Factory before Toyota bought the naming rights, the city owns the $180 million development and leases it to Ark Group of Irving. As part of the lease, the city gets seats in the front row of section 201, in the roofed portion of the amphitheater. The premium tickets include access to the Live Nation VIP Club before, during, and after shows, as well as two VIP parking passes. If you figure 13 Live Nation events per month, the monthly food and drink tab breaks down to $135 per attendee, per event.

A memo sent by City Manager Chris Hillman in August 2017, a month before the venue opened, characterizes the city’s benefit as “additional rent,” which could be taken to mean that if the city did not receive the tickets and comped consumables, it would need to be further compensated in actual monetary rent. That’s revenue that could offset what Irving residents pay in taxes. Instead, the tickets are to be used, per that memo, to help elected officials do their jobs:

The Premium Seat tickets and food/beverage allowance are intended to be used for the performance of city business. This may include, but is not limited to, promoting the City of Irving, entertaining economic development prospects, and meetings with officials from other governmental entities.

You’ll recall VisitDallas argued something similar regarding its AAC suite: that was how it helped promote the city. Granted, it actually paid for what it was receiving, albeit with a budget built on lots of city funds.

How closely do Irving’s mayor and Council follow the rules? If you believe my tipster, not very. After I emailed Mayor Stopfer Monday, he left me a voicemail about his use of the tickets. “I receive four so that I can take a couple with me,” said Stopfer, who was not mayor when talks to develop the Music Factory commenced. “We use it for different things such as if kids win awards or things of that nature or art contests or people who do things in the community.”

On the phone Tuesday, he defended the seats, saying they were never for personal use. He compared them to the city’s set up at the old Texas Stadium, where the mayor and Council each had their own suite. But indeed, those types of arrangements have started to come under fire. Last year, an ethics commission in Oakland dismissed a claim against the mayor and a city council member related to Golden State Warriors tickets but concluded in the process that officials viewed the tickets as a “perk of the office.” A 2016 investigation by Tampa Bay-based 10 News found officials accepted free tickets to all three local pro teams without disclosing the gifts.

“It’s very normal in the sports world — though controversial, as you might imagine, since city officials voting for a new stadium or arena and then getting free tickets raises obvious conflict-of-interest issues,” says Neil deMause, who keeps tabs on sports-related subsidies at fieldofschemes.com.

Stopfer was surprised to hear that the Music Factory tickets were considered by the lease as additional rent. “You’ve got me on that; I’m not sure how that lays out,” he said. He says he’d been thinking about it differently—“that, since the city owns the facility, we’re able to utilize a portion of the facility. Not necessarily something that could be utilized any other way.”

He said Irving’s chamber and convention and visitor’s bureau also have seats nearby, so he’s often mingling with folks those entities bring around. He says he’s taken along veterans to concerts who are trying to do other good things for veterans. But when I asked about who he took to his most recent show according to the list the city sent me—an August 2 Hammer’s House Party concert for which he grabbed his normal four tickets—Stopfer said he’d need a minute to check on his other phone.

The line was silent for three minutes and 20 seconds. “Those two tickets actually went to another Council person, Kyle Taylor,” he said when he got back on. “And there were four people who came from the Hispanic Chamber. So we switched tickets with them so the four could sit together in the Chamber seats.” Trying to drill down on what exactly that meant became a dizzying affair, but Stopfer did say that he, Taylor, and their plus-ones sat together in Stopfer’s seats.

I asked about the two previous nights. Stopfer says that on August 1, he gave his four tickets to the family of a young girl who won an arts contest (he gives all four of his tickets away infrequently, he says). On July 31, he and his wife’s two guests were Karen Cooperstein, owner of Crater Lake Consulting, and Chuck Cooperstein, voice of the Dallas Mavericks. The Coopersteins co-chair the Irving Salvation Army Super Lunch.

I asked if he kept a list of his attendees. He said that he didn’t used to, but more recently, he probably takes down about 75 or 80 percent of his guests. I asked if he’d provide the list. He said he’d need to check with some of the people before handing out their names to press, and that he’s busy. It’s budget time. But he’ll try to have something to me in a couple days. I’ll update.

I also put out some emails to Council members, with no luck. Records show they’re jumping at the chance to get in on the fun via the lottery system that spills out the final three tickets. (Here’s that list of ticket distribution; again, it only includes names of officials, not their guests.)

The city does have a form that these elected officials sign each time they take tickets to be used “in the performance of my duties as an official of the City of Irving,” a form Hillman stated in his memo is necessary to comply with IRS regulations. Officials fill out the show, the date, and the number of tickets. There is no mention of who the officials will be entertaining. Evidently, that’s not something the IRS needs.

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