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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

Met Council Chairman Peter Bell, right, 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 this week.

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.

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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.