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The Met Council problem: regionalism

Courtesy of Metro Transit/Mike Doyle
If regionalism were working, we would have a well-funded, long-range plan for transportation that gets people where they want to go.

The Metropolitan Council is an appointed body created by the Minnesota Legislature to plan for the growth and delivery of regional services in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. It has many of the broad powers normally entrusted to elected officials, such as the power to tax and take property for public use — but none of the council members are elected by the people they govern. The governor appoints all 16 commissioners and the chair; they serve at his pleasure and direction.

Kim Crockett
Kim Crockett

The Met Council is not directly elected because the Legislature wanted this regional body to be free of “parochial” considerations so commissioners could act broadly for the sake of the entire region. State-level oversight is how Minnesota has justified a unique “one-off” form of regionalism. There is no other regional government quite like the Met Council in the United States.

Citizens are dependent on the governor and Legislature for oversight but historically, neither the Legislature nor a long string of governors has held the council in check. As a result, the council’s policies lack credibility with citizens and local elected officials.

An expanded mission

By it very structure, the council is not accountable to the people it governs — or even to the people we elect at the local and county level. Predictably, the council has rejected the narrow mission the Legislature assigned it — to accommodate growth in the region by planning for and delivering regional services — and flipped and expanded the mission to directing growth by leveraging its power over planning, transportation and sewers.

Proof of that rejected mission is “Thrive MSP 2040,” the Dayton administration’s 30-year plan for development in the metro region. In sum, Thrive rejects the region’s need for new roads for cars and buses. The plan grandiosely aims to solve big issues like the achievement gap, income inequality and climate change by huddling us around fixed train lines and getting us out of our cars. In doing so, the Met Council makes a power grab at housing — without authorization from the Legislature.

To be clear, the “problem” is not Thrive per se. The problem is regionalism. Thrive is just an advanced symptom of the Met Council’s governance problem.

Before the Legislature can solve the Met Council problem, it needs to ask what the state was trying to accomplish back in the 1960s when the council was established.

Set aside for the moment the clear desirability of regional services for sewage treatment and transit; the initial goal was to require local units of government to have comprehensive plans. We needed sewer pipes and roads to match up — at an efficient price. The goal of comprehensive planning by cities was largely accomplished by the 1980s. Instead of declaring, “Job well done!” the state kept building on top of an unaccountable council structure.

Why do we need it?

Why does the region need a regional body — appointed or elected — when we already have local, county, and state officials — and more ballot decisions than informed, conscientious citizens can reasonably make?

The Legislature created the problem and made it worse by adding to the Met Council’s power without addressing its accountability problem. This has left Minnesota without a credible, widely accepted plan for the region.

The mistake the Legislature has made over and over is thinking that it can vest significant authority in a body that is not elected by, and therefore accountable to, the people who must live with its decisions. The great, still radical idea of the American Experiment is that regular people should be allowed to govern themselves without interference from well-meaning elites and so-called experts. We accept some level of interference from our elected officials — but not appointees.

Time for unworkable experiment to end

The Met Council has been a five-decade experiment in something other than democracy. And though it may not be politically feasible, as a matter of sound public policy the Met Council should be unwound, with useful functions returned to local and state government. This is not a punishment for overstepping its bounds — a sort of political execution — however satisfying that would be to many people. The elimination of the Met Council would simply be a recognition that regionalism does not work.

In 2011, Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles evaluated transit in the Twin Cities. The report found that too many organizations touch transportation operations, that transit is marked by inefficiency and dysfunctionality — and relationships strained by overlapping responsibilities and distrust.

In other words, we have the burden of regionalism but not the benefits. If regionalism were working, we would have a well-funded, long-range plan for transportation that gets people where they want to go. Instead we have shoddy roads and a revolt by suburban counties and cities.

Jim Nobles’ office concluded that the Met Council’s governance structure must be reformed. He wrote, “The current situation has resulted in large part from the Metropolitan Council’s lack of credibility among elected officials and other regional stakeholders.”

‘Option 2’: likely better than the status quo

While we strongly urge the Legislature to consider an orderly transition back to local and state control of the region, we recognize that a consensus may be building around some version of what is called “Option 2” in the Legisltive Auditor’s report. The report recommended “a Council with a mix of gubernatorial appointees and elected officials from the region.”

The Center of the American Experiment does not endorse any particular mix of local officials on the Met Council, but we are cautiously optimistic that it would be better than the status quo. Local elected officials would bring “parochial” views but they would also being a lot of knowledge about what we can afford, as well as respect for people’s dreams and preferences.

At a minimum, the governor and the Legislature should reject Thrive MSP 2040 in its entirety and declare a moratorium on all light-rail projects so the Legislature can get a handle on the capital and operating costs.

Perhaps the grand arrogance of Thrive MSP 2040 will finally bring legislative and regional factions together to solve or at least improve the Met Council problem.

Kim Crockett is the COO of Center of the American Experiment. She is the co-author with Katherine Kersten of “Met Council Power Grab: How the Dayton Administration Intends to Transform the Twin Cities Region for Decades to Come,” from the Minnesota Policy Blueprint.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by William Lindeke on 10/30/2014 - 07:55 am.

    yikes

    Have you ever tried to take the bus in LA? There are 88 cities just in LA County and hundreds more surrounding. None of them cooperate and many of them run separate bus systems. We better hope regionalism works here, because the alternative is a world filled with gated communities and structural segregation between the rich and the poor, everyone competing to hand out tax breaks to businesses, cities cannibalizing each other in a zero-sum game.

    I’d be curious to see a link to the Auditor’s report. I’d like to actually read it.

    • Submitted by Cedar Phillips on 10/30/2014 - 09:14 am.

      I’ve got to stick up for LA here: yes, as a former public-transportation-dependent resident of LA county (both the city of Los Angeles and later South Pasadena) I took many buses (and trains, and subways, and light rail) in LA, and found the public transportation system to be a VAST improvement over what we have here in Minneapolis. I crossed multiple municipal boundaries and used buses (local and express), heavy rail, light rail, and subway, and while there was certainly room for improvement, it was also impressive just how well it DID work, especially for cross-town or suburb-to-suburb rides.

      I agree that having a unified regional approach is the way to go, but would not point to LA as a poster child for what doesn’t work–especially given that for some of us, anyway, LA’s system offered far more flexibility and efficiency than does what is currently on tap in in the Twin Cities.

    • Submitted by kim Crockett on 10/31/2014 - 09:23 am.

      2011 transit report from Office of Legislative Auditor

      Dear Yikes–

      Here is the report–it is long and detailed but well summarized: http://www.auditor.leg.state.mn.us/ped/pedrep/transit.pdf

      We can (and should) have regional systems for the treatment of waste water and transit but we do not need the Met Council.

      Kim Crockett

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/02/2014 - 10:29 am.

        Regional

        Kim, you contradict yourself in your posting. You say we need regional coordination for water and transit, but then you go on to say we should abolish the very regional group set up to handle that function. I think what you meant to say is that this particular group, the Met Council, does not fit your vision of what a regional group should look like. Having an opinion though is not enough to say people to your point of view–you need to have some reason and logic behind that opinion.

        So far I haven’t seen anything compelling to back up your point of view. Do you have anything better in your back pocket or did you put your best arguments out first?

        To rephrase your statement, we can (and should) have regional systems for the treatment of waste water and transit and we already have that with the Met Council. Until you come up with a better idea, the Met Council can (and should) stand as is.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/30/2014 - 08:41 am.

    Yikes, indeed!

    “Local control” can be political heroin, and Ms. Crockett is obviously an addict.

    Bill Lindeke’s example from L.A. is very much to-the-point. So is St. Louis County, Missouri – with 96 municipalities – and so is the Colorado Front Range, where 80% of the state’s population lives within 25 miles of I-25, but has political divisions and philosophies that are worlds apart.

    If the Met Council has little or no credibility with local officials, it says more about the parochialism of those local officials than it does about the Met Council.

  3. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 10/30/2014 - 09:00 am.

    “Without interference from well meaning elites

    And so called experts” – meaning the Center of the American Experiment, Crockett and Kersten. LOL

  4. Submitted by jody rooney on 10/30/2014 - 10:05 am.

    Double yikes!

    I thought the Thrive 2040 as described was a little out there. Mostly because I believe the twin cities has already missed the transit boat.

    But we see what happens when we get local control. Hugo just re did the rail line as a trail. I suppose 5 years from now when the commuter rail stops in White Bear and the after work buying goes with it they will work on local community development.

    Ms. Krocket is however way off the mark. Did the Center ever have anyone who could sequence ideas or does MinnPost just print their work to embarrass them.

    I am not a fan of met council, which is not to say I am not a fan of their coordination and infrastructure mission. They are too unfocused and lack the skills to be effective. They need a house cleaning – not of appointed staff, but of hired staff.

    Every minute I spent working with them on a project made my skin crawl. I think the only time I have ever demanded anything in my work career was to be reassigned from that project. Their staff had no concept of actually benefiting the public or making life easier – it was all about the paperwork.

  5. Submitted by Michael Hess on 10/30/2014 - 11:21 am.

    supporting vs directing.

    the point of the article seems to be that the Met Council has strayed from it’s charter of coordinating regional services like transit and sewers to directing local municipalities on how they should develop themselves. It’s a transition from supporting the region to directing the region. As most of the comment here suggest, there should be value in a regional approach to things like transit. But when cities and towns are given mandated targets for affordable housing, or told how to zone property, that’s a different story.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/30/2014 - 04:15 pm.

      Affordable

      I would argue that affordable housing and zoning are very much part of the Met Council’s mandate. If cities aren’t required to have a certain percentage of subsidized and market rate housing, they simply go all out on the luxury apartments. Then the poor get concentrated into certain areas and there isn’t nearby housing for the people who make your coffee and clean your toilets. Silicon Valley has a problem that even the teachers, police, and fire staff don’t make enough to live near the area they serve. Let’s not repeat someone else’s mistakes.

      Zoning is pretty much a slam dunk yes indeed in the Council’s ball court. If a city wants to plop down a big mall instead of, say, low density housing, that’s going to take a completely different grade of water and sewer hookups. And who gets to pay for all that? The Met Council. We can’t afford to write a blank check to each and every city that wants to expand their sewer network on the tax payer’s dime.

      • Submitted by kim Crockett on 10/31/2014 - 09:37 am.

        Housing and the Met Council

        Dear Todd,

        The problem with your argument is that the Legislature–made up of people we all voted for–has not authorized the Council to manage and direct housing as a system. In other words, when the Council tries to direct housing, it is acting outside of its authority. If you want the Council to control say, affordable housing, that power has to be granted by the Legislature.

        Also, the Council does not have the power to zone. That has been and remains in the power of our cities and local, elected officials. There is, however, interface via the Comprehensive Plans filed with the Council every ten years.

        Another thing: when you say that the Met Council pays for something rather than a particular city, that just means all of us who pay the fees and taxes assessed by the Council (or transit funds from state and federal taxpayers).

        Thanks for caring–this is important stuff!

        Kim Crockett

        • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/31/2014 - 02:32 pm.

          Zoning

          You’re correct that the Council does not set zoning–the cities do. The municipalities can go nuts all day long though and zone to their heart’s content, but it doesn’t mean a lot unless there are already utility hookups there or they can get the Met Council to sign off on their plan and provide those hookups.

          So no, the Council doesn’t have direct control over zoning, but they do have de facto veto power.

          Yes, we as taxpayers do indeed pay for the goods and services the Met Council provides. That’s just a basic tenant of society. What the author of this opinion piece is complaining about isn’t that we’re being assessed for this stuff, but rather that she wants the funds to go to more roads and sewers in outlying areas rather than inner areas. There’s no doubt about the color of her shirt! She wants the tap to keep flowing, but in her direction instead of someone else’s direction.

  6. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 10/30/2014 - 12:03 pm.

    I agree with the premise: “The problem is regionalism.” But I’m sure that’s where our agreement ends.

    So, the mission of the Met Council is to “accommodate growth.” Which assumes growth isan asset, and an inevitability. We now know that much of the growth we see in our region is in fact a liability rather than an asset, a burden on local governments and the state that will drive them towards bankruptcy if we don’t turn this ship around. The suburban experiment is the result of massive subsidies, the largest social engineering experiment in the history of humankind. I’m surprised to see free market advocates defending such subsidies and social engineering.

    And even if this growth was an asset rather than a liability, this growth is no longer an inevitability. The reality is that nobody wants it anymore despite how far we’re tipping the scales towards that style of growth.

    We can no longer afford the liability of “growth at all costs.” We need *productive growth.* The problem is regionalism. But regionalism has been a driving force in the massive subsidy of non-productive growth in the suburban experiment.

  7. Submitted by David Markle on 10/30/2014 - 12:05 pm.

    Regionalism a problem?

    How do we get a good public transit system without a good regional authority? I don’t see how. But the Met Council has often done a poor job. Consider the way they bowed to St. Paul and Ramsey County’s wish to place the Green Line on the street, making it a slow local service rather than a rapid trunk line in a regional system. The Met Council shirked its oversight duty. And then the current governor appointed to Met Council chairmanship the very person who pushed the Ramsey Regional Rail Authority into making such a bad decision. And how about that Southwest Corridor: does anyone seriously think the Met Council has handled the matter very well?

    Of course part of the problem is public lack of awareness of Met Council doings; after all, it’s not an elected board. But the public also seems largely unaware of transit issues until homeowners learn that a train may run within earshot.

    We’re heading towards transportation strangulation, a regional problem. Thus we need a good regional authority, but clearly the transit planning process needs to change, beginning with reform of the Met Council. We’ll see if the Legislature has the necessary vision.

    • Submitted by Brad James on 10/31/2014 - 09:56 am.

      In case you missed the Green Line is super successful. I don’t see how making transit fast but not useful helps anything. You are upset that no one cares about your bad opinion.

  8. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/30/2014 - 04:43 pm.

    Met Objections

    You know what’s driving this whole debate, don’t you? It’s not about “accommodate growth” or “directing growth.” Those are just nuances thrown out to try to rally more people to the cause so certain groups can further their agenda. They’ll tell you all day long it’s about fairness, taxation without representation, regionalism, changing mandates, and so on.

    Don’t fall for it.

    Here’s what’s really going on.

    The Met Council pays for infrastructure expansion in the metro area. If the Met doesn’t pay for the new roads, water, and sewer hookups, cities have a tougher time expanding their population because then they have to fund it all themselves and they don’t want to do that. They want to force the Met to pay for the expansion. In other words, they want to be subsidized.

    Now sewers, no growth.

    The Met in the meantime wants to spend more money on the inner city. Not all, but more. For a long time the outlying areas have had an open tap and the money has flowed for the freeways, sewers, park-n-rides, and other infrastructure improvements. These improvements have meant a lot of growth in far-flung suburbs and they want to keep that tap flowing. It means more residents, more businesses, more taxes, and increasing property values for them. Property speculators like it because they’ve bought property out there for cheap and expect to make money flipping it.

    But not if the formula changes and more money is spent inside the cities on improvements like trains and achievement gaps. The ex-urbs will still get some money and some growth, but not at the rate they’re used to. Did you notice that many of the municipalities complaining about the new formula are from the ex-urbs? Those cities tend to be partially rural and conservative. And they’ve naturally found an ally in the Center of the American Experiment, who wrote this article and is a conservative think tank.

    The thing is we simply can’t afford to build more roads and more sewers, ever expanding outward. As you can see by the recent 35W bridge collapse and the roads in the area, we can’t afford to keep up with what we have. Much of the sewer network we have in the Twin Cities was built right after WWII, seventy years ago. It’s getting aged and sooner or later it will need to be repaired and replaced. And that ain’t cheap!

    So do we add to that unpaid bill by adding more sewers and roads? Or do we dial back the future expenditures and build some trains instead?

    The strategy the Met Council’s opponents are taking here are to say they would like the Council eliminated, but gosh they’ll compromise by settling for some elected representatives instead. Because, you know, representation and…FREEDOM! The objective is to put the board into partisan gridlock and prevent it from doing any meaningful work (sound familiar?) or get a majority on the board who will then flip the formula back to its old equation. Or worse.

    The whole notion that the Met Council sucks sounds like a made-up tempest to me, designed to introduce more politics into an organization that, while not perfect, is finally getting some much-needed equity into the system.

    My advice: don’t fall for their diatribe. Hold the line, keep the Council as it is, and don’t give an inch on anything. Stand up for and demand equity.

    If you’ve read this far, you have my sympathies. Sometimes I go on way too long for even my tastes, even though I try to be succinct. I blame it on my mother.

  9. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 10/30/2014 - 05:19 pm.

    Then reduce the amount of local government

    The reason that the Met Council is necessary is because there are simply too many units of local government. You start with seven counties – far to many to have a rational system of service delivery. You then have hundreds of cities – again far to many to have a rational system of service delivery. There needs to be an effective metro-wide body that coordinates services. If that body needs an elected body to oversee it, so be it. But there HAS to be a single coordinating body.

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