Democratic Gov. Tim Walz’s first move to reshape regional government in the metro came shortly after his election last fall, when he announced his pick for Metropolitan Council chair: Nora Slawik, who made high-level staff changes of her own, including replacing leadership of Metro Transit.
And now, roughly two months later, the roster of those who will be pushing Walz’s vision for the region — more affordable housing, more bus rapid transit and more clean energy — is taking shape. The governor appoints a chair and 16 district representatives to the Met Council every four years. The 17-member council governs the region’s highways, light rail, sewers, water and parks, as well as writes big-picture plans for development to steer population growth. Walz’s council picks took the oath of office Wednesday.
Looming in the backdrop of the leadership shift is a longstanding question about the regional body: If, or to what extent, the new members and Walz can placate those who, for years, have criticized the Met Council’s authority, because of its power and role in long-range policy planning despite it not being an elected body.
Several Walz appointees are stressing their past elected offices, either as suburban mayors or city council members, and work in diverse communities, which they say can improve the Met Council’s reputation at the Capitol — and in their districts.
“The Met Council was heavy-handed back in the day — not as partner oriented,” said Met Council member Judy Johnson, the former mayor of Plymouth. “Whether it be transit opportunities, housing opportunities, access to parks, everybody’s got a voice in that. We’re not leaving out segments of the population.”
Nothing else like it
The state Legislature created the Met Council more than five decades ago in response to federal law requiring regional governing bodies to oversee loan and grant applications and problems with the region’s wastewater and bus systems. Soon after, state lawmakers also established a separate agency to manage public transportation, what is now Metro Transit.
But by the early 1990s, state lawmakers agreed that structure needed to change. Former state legislator Myron Orfield, who now studies regional government at the University of Minnesota, wrote legislation that created the modern version of the council, with the transit and sewer agency folded within it its realm of authority.
But state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have long questioned the Met Council’s role in state and local government, criticizing its breadth of power and lack of public accountability.
Nowhere else in the U.S. is there a similar body of government. Most metropolitan regions meet federal mandates for regional government agencies with far weaker groups called Councils of Government (or COGs). Only Portland, Oregon, has a group that is somewhat like the Met Council, though that region’s voters elect its members.
With sweeping changes in membership tied to whoever occupies the governor’s office, some opponents also argue the council loses institutional memory for long-range planning that makes for a less consistent vision for the region. And some state leaders have pushed for staggered terms to keep new governors from immediately replacing the chair and all 16 members at the same time.
Republican legislators have also argued against the council’s appointment process — saying members instead should have to answer to voters with elections — and have led efforts to reduce the group’s authority, arguing it allows Democrats to favor the metro area’s interests over those of Greater Minnesota.
Meanwhile, Democrats, too, have supported proposals that would increase accountability of the Met Council by requiring nominees to receive endorsements from local elected leaders, a move that was based on “concerns about the local control issue and that local leaders still view themselves as the local experts,” Johnson said.
‘Strong partnerships with local communities’
Met Council members are paid about $20,000 annually for what is considered a part-time job. Seven former Met Council members under Dayton’s administration applied to stay on the job, though Walz reappointed just two of them: Deb Barber and Wendy Wulff, who is now serving her fifth term.
Walz’s appointees tend to have deep experience in community-level activism and helping address racial disparities. Nearly half of the new council members are people of color or indigenous people — up from 25 percent during Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration.
Walz picked Robert Lilligren, a former Minneapolis City Council member who now heads the Native American Community Development Institute, to represent a portion of the city, as well as Abdirahman Muse, who leads the Awood Center that helps East African immigrants and refugees facing mistreatment.
Among the new members is Lynnea Atlas-Ingebretson, who helps run a North Minneapolis business that helps young artists. She emphasized the new group’s opportunity to listen to people who have been historically ignored in regional development plans.
Another new member Raymond Zeran, said he is eager to explore ways to use more solar energy – considering his past occupation as an electrician. And Phillip Sterner, who represents the Burnsville area, highlighted an “affordable housing for all” mantra that Walz has promised, too.
The new members – who represent districts of roughly the same population – are inheriting several massive transportation projects from their predecessors. They include the Southwest light rail and new bus rapid transit lines between Minneapolis and Burnsville (the Orange Line) and St. Paul and Woodbury (the Gold Line). The council will also soon give final say on nearly 200 comprehensive plans from the countries, cities and townships.
“That’s one of the things they’re going to have to start voting on right away,” said Slawik, a former state legislator before her last job as mayor of Maplewood. She is the only full-time member of the council and is the group’s liaison to the governor.
She said she hired a new general manager of Metro Transit, Wes Kooistra, because she said his priorities matched that of the administration’s vision for improving everyone’s access to transportation.
Slawik said Walz picked other people to the council for that reason, too. They include Met Council member Molly Cummings, the former mayor of Hopkins, who said the right leadership can expand public transit so that everyone in the metro and Greater Minnesota benefits.
Johnson said it’s that philosophy, as well as a new commitment to engagement, that will separate the new Met Council from the past. “Instead of it being this tense relationship that has built various constituencies over the years on how to change the Met Council at the legislative level, I think this could be an opportunity where … we have a strong partnership with the local communities.”