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Metro politics: Bell, Mondale and Johnson think the Met Council has done a good job of ‘building out’ the Twin Cities

Peter Bell
Peter Bell

Given the rising importance of metropolitan areas as drivers of the world economy, should the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Council be elected? (No.) Does the region’s “decentralized” development pattern harm its ability to compete while leaving behind concentrations of poverty? And, if so, is the council responsible? (Maybe.) Should the council play a major role in drawing economic development to the region? (No.)

These were among the questions and answers discussed on Monday as Met Council Chairman Peter Bell and two former chairs, Ted Mondale and Curt Johnson, offered a wide-ranging look at the council’s past and future to the Regional Council of Mayors. The forum took place in downtown Minneapolis and was sponsored by the Urban Land Institute-Minnesota.

Electing the Met Council?
The question of involving voters more directly in metro governance has arisen in recent years alongside the growing realization that metropolitan regions are becoming primary drivers of the world’s economy. Yet few metro regions are accountable to voters.

While Minneapolis-St. Paul, unlike most of its peers, has a metro government of sorts, it’s really an appendage of the governor’s office. The governor, even if a majority of metro voters opposed him, gets to name the council’s chair and 16 members to handle planning, transit and other matters in the inner seven counties. Six outer metro counties (two of them in Wisconsin) are not included.

Metro governance has drawn particular attention over the last eight years because of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s opposition (and thus the Met Council’s opposition) to funding an expanded transit system. In 2008, the Legislature bypassed the council by overriding a Pawlenty veto and giving authority to metro counties to fund and extend transit lines.

Would an elected Met Council solve the political impasse on such issues? Bell doesn’t think so. Neither does Mondale, who chaired the council under Gov. Jesse Ventura, or Johnson, who served under Gov. Arne Carlson. An elected council would bring even more partisan discord, they said, citing the current sad state of politics.

Ted Mondale
Ted Mondale

Mondale, recalling his days as a state senator in the 1990s, said the parties would disagree but then sit down craft a compromise. Today there is no compromise, he said. “Politics is only about finding an issue to beat the other guy over the head with.”

Making politics just a game
Johnson said that neither politicians nor ordinary people understand the consequences of treating politics as just a game. Because political discourse is in such bad shape, people don’t realize that Minnesota’s vaunted “exceptionalism” and “effortless superiority” are things of the past, he said.

Bell, while also decrying the current political atmosphere, said he would favor mild reforms to the council’s structure as a way of moving the council closer to voters. He proposed that seven county commissioners serve alongside nine gubernatorial appointees on the council, or that county commissioners nominate council members. At a minimum, staggered terms should be restored to improve continuity from one administration to the next, he said.

Curt Johnson
Curt Johnson

Johnson agreed, but Mondale took the opposite view. He favors a strong role for a governor and is less open to changing the current system, saying only that metro issues should play a bigger part in gubernatorial campaigns.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” Mondale said, adding that the Legislature will never vote to dilute its own power by allowing an elected Met Council. Likewise he said politics will simply not allow the council to take in additional counties. “It’s just not going to happen,” he said.

Does decentralization hurt the Twin Cities?
The question about whether the metro area’s decentralized development pattern hurts its competitiveness is especially touchy. The Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz raised the issue last year. University of Minnesota Law School Professor Myron Orfield wrote a book about it this year. And last week, in a Cityscape interview, he suggested that the council was partly to blame.

By strictly enforcing its authority over local zoning, the council could have prevented much of the commercial and business development on the edge while retaining jobs and vitality in older communities, Orfield said. Severe concentrations of poverty in the inner cities and suburbs might have been averted, he added. The result has been harmful to the region’s ability to compete for new prosperity. Dispersing jobs away from downtowns and other clusters renders transit ineffective. Moreover, decentralization is costly and inefficient, both for families and for governments responsible for infrastructure. That’s the critique.

Bell said he understands Orfield’s argument. What’s required, he said, is a balance among social equity, efficiency and the aspirations of suburbs. Bell said he thinks the right balance has been struck. He said he doubts that land-use planning can be successfully used to break up concentrations of poverty. The root problem isn’t geography, he said. It’s lack of social structures like marriage, personal responsibility and educational values.

Myron Orfield
Myron Orfield

Johnson agreed, especially on the education component. He said that Orfield talks as if suburbs were a mistake. The subsidies that suburbs enjoy may well be offset by the weighty bureaucracies that hinder redevelopment in the central cities, he added.

Mondale suggested that Orfield’s views are colored by academia rather than real-world experience. He agreed, however, that a highly segregated, decentralized region like the Twin Cities may find it difficult to compete with more balanced regions. Land-use planning and transit can be employed effectively to attack social inequity, he said, adding that he thinks the Twin Cities is making progress and that Met Council has contributed in mostly positive ways.

Aside from providing infrastructure, none of the three council leaders said he favored a more active role for metro government in economic development. Each applauded the Itasca Project’s efforts to mount a regional, business-run economic-development effort. Mondale and Johnson did say they favor closer links between transportation and land development as part of the council’s work.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/13/2010 - 09:57 am.

    Interesting piece, Steve.

    Placed in a politically-impossible position – Mr. Bell, in particular, as the current Met Council Chair – it’s not surprising that the Met Council Trio offer only mild criticism of their own or anyone else’s performance. Biting the hand(s) that feeds you isn’t usually healthy for careers.

    I’m too new to the region and state to personally have strong feelings for or against electing the Met Council. There are reasonable arguments on both sides of that issue, but given the strength of what, for lack of a better name, I’ll call parochialism in the metro area, appointment may be a more effective and efficient way to approach it. I agree with the Trio that today’s malevolent political climate would bring political discord to new, perhaps paralyzing, levels.

    Since the metro area has a plurality, if not a majority, of the state’s population, I’m inclined to side with Ted Mondale in believing that it should play a larger role in gubernatorial campaigns. Beyond that, while adding the “collar” counties is a great idea, it’s simply not going to happen in the current political climate.

    In relation to Myron Orfield’s argument – at least as summarized here on MinnPost – I can’t agree with Peter Bell. The fact that there ARE sizable pockets of poverty, and areas badly served by transit, suggests rather strongly that the Met Council has NOT achieved “the right balance” among competing interests. While I’m inclined to agree that social structures and local (as in “neighborhood”) cultures, especially in regard to education, add a significant layer of difficulty to solving area economic and social issues, I think Bell is simply wrong in suggesting that land-use planning can’t break up concentrations of poverty. A rather good case can be made that land-use planning helped CREATE the problems in the first place, by encouraging fringe development, single-use zoning, and, in residential contexts, by NOT insisting on mixed-used and, especially, mixed-income development, something which was apparently within the Met Council’s power. There’s no ethically-justifiable reason for government to cooperate in creating economic apartheid.

    Land use and transportation are inextricably linked, whether political leaders like it or not, and at least Mondale and Johnson seem aware of that, but if – if – Bell’s apparent silence on that point indicates that it’s something he doesn’t see a prominent role for on the Council’s agenda, he’s not serving the region well.

  2. Submitted by Jesse Mortenson on 10/13/2010 - 04:47 pm.

    “[Peter Bell] doubts that land-use planning can be successfully used to break up concentrations of poverty. The root problem isn’t geography, he said. It’s lack of social structures like marriage, personal responsibility and educational values.”

    Is it just me, or is Bell espousing the conventional conservative politician’s dismissal of poverty as a result of lazy people with bad morals who don’t value education? Assuming the paraphrase is accurate, it’s hard for me to interpret that as anything other than a “blame poor people for poverty” argument.

    I doubt that many metro residents would agree with such a view. Bell’s views on poverty are very important, because, as Orfield points out, deciding that land use has something to do with poverty or not leads to critical differences in metro development policy.

    How can Bell claim with a straight face that transportation to good jobs is not a major challenge for many poor people? As development policies encourage companies with good jobs to move farther away from the urban core and inner ring (where established pockets of poverty most commonly exist), it gets harder for more poor people to reach decent jobs. Bell thinks that the placement, mix and quantity of affordable housing (all land use issues) do not affect poverty?

    I think Bell has really made the point for Orfield: we need an elected met council if only to prevent someone from holding the reigns of the met council while also holding relevant views that run distinctly counter to the majority of metro residents. Bell is clearly representing Pawlenty in his view of poverty, not folks here in the Metro.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/13/2010 - 06:11 pm.

    It’s evident that Bell does share Pawlenty’s right wing view of poverty and that there’s nothing that can be done about it. But that might not be what ails the Met. Council in failing in its mission.

    Maybe I’m wrong about what the Met. Council part of the agency does, but I’m not sure an elected Met. Council would change anything. Whatever I’ve heard about the Met. Council has always been about the “Chair” of the Met. Council, not on how the 16 or whatever members vote or think. Or what they’re even allowed to vote on. The “Met. Council” is also a bureaucracy which manages and plans the sewer and transportation planning which drives the development. I’ve done some research on this and found that some of the major interceptors for the Metro. Region have been planned and designed by outsourced engineering firms, the same firms which also staff the cities which are supposedly asking for sewer services (conflict of interest?). This is usually without anyone in town knowing or even hearing about it. This is how private developer and real estate interests insert their influence into the process.

    More than a few of the outer ring suburbs literally were “engineered” by some of the big engineering firms who drafted the comprehensive plans which found their way into the Met. Council “Blueprints”. Woodbury’s Comp. Plan of 1978 for instance was drafted by one such firm which predicated its “Transportation Plan” on the assumption that 85% of the highway travel in the City would be by automobile and 15% by public transport. I’d be surprised if 5% of the travel today in Woodbury was by public transport. If the regional planning has been outsourced by firms who are the major beneficiaries of the design-build contracts, who are not overseen by any public officials, is it any wonder the Met. Council has failed to achieve any balance in accommodating urban growth to jobs for the jobless?

  4. Submitted by David Greene on 10/13/2010 - 06:55 pm.

    “Bell said he thinks the right balance has been struck. He said he doubts that land-use planning can be successfully used to break up concentrations of poverty. The root problem isn’t geography, he said. It’s lack of social structures like marriage, personal responsibility and educational values.”

    No. The root problem is institutional racism and the Met Council has been reinforcing it. Opposing transit funding is an institutionally racist act. Spending large sums of money to build sewers in the farthest corners of the metro area is an institutionally racist act. A transportation planning process that shuts out the community entirely is an institutionally racist act.

    “Johnson agreed, especially on the education component.”

    Oh, that tired old argument. Perhaps if we addressed institutional racism and inequity kids would find it a bit easier to learn.

    “He said that Orfield talks as if suburbs were a mistake.”

    No, they were not a mistake. They were a deliberate act of post-war housing policy.

    “The subsidies that suburbs enjoy may well be offset by the weighty bureaucracies that hinder redevelopment in the central cities, he added.”

    Perhaps those “weighty bureaucracies” exist for a reason. Like accountability. Accountability requires open process and open process requires people, time and money. That means larger systems and more government. more government is not bad. Bad government is bad.

    It’s quite insulting to have Johnson slam the central cities when they subsidize not only the rest of the metro area but the entire state.

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