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Can the Met Council be tamed?

Recently, two controversies have again raised the ire of elected officials toward the powerful Met Council. And even supporters think change may be coming. 

Can the Met Council be tamed?
MinnPost illustration by Brian Barber
With 4,200 employees and an $890 million annual operating budget, the Metropolitan Council is a benevolent beast of local government.

It’s the fourth-largest government in Minnesota, measured by annual budget. It delivers some of the most important services in the state’s most populous region. It has the power to tax, and it decides where growth — and all it entails — should occur in the metro region. 

And there really isn’t anything like it in the United States.

With 4,200 employees and an $890 million annual operating budget, the Metropolitan Council is a benevolent beast of local government, providing both critical daily functions — highways, mass transit, sewers, water and parks — as well as developing far-reaching plans that will guide the region’s future growth. 

“There are no comparables,” said University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield, who studies regional government, and who, as a state legislator, drafted the 1994 bill that created the modern iteration of the Met Council.

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Despite all that, the 16 mostly anonymous board members who make the Met Council’s decisions never face voters — and need just one supporter to take office: the governor. They are, as critics almost invariably describe them, the “unelected” Met Council.

For officials in the region who are elected, that fact has long been the source of frustration. “This whole thing has made me wonder once again how different would this look if … the Met Council and the members had to answer to the people and the residents of the city?” Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon said during the city’s debate over the alignment for the massive Southwest LRT project.

The non-partisan Office of the Legislative Auditor said much of the same when it went looking into the Met Council in 2011, finding that the council’s lack of elected members reduced its credibility. “Many stakeholders we interviewed did not think the Met Council members are sufficiently accountable for their decisions,” the report noted.

Perhaps former Met Council chair Peter Bell, who served as the council chair during all eight years of the Tim Pawlenty administration, sums up the body’s unique role most succinctly: “Ninety percent of the people don’t know it exists. And the other 10 percent go to bed each night worrying about what it might do.” 

Change inevitable?

At the time it was released, the legislative audit report triggered lots of conversations and lots of legislative hearings about the Met Council — and exactly zero changes in its makeup or how it is chosen. 

Recently, though, two controversies have yet again raised the council’s profile — and again led to calls for reform: One over the chosen alignment of Southwest light rail transit, which will extend the Green Line light rail route to Eden Prairie; and another over the proposed transportation funding formula designed to address racial and income inequities in urban areas over the transit needs of the five so-called collar counties: Washington, Dakota, Scott, Anoka, and Carver.

On Thursday afternoon, a pair of suburban Republican legislators will hold a press conference “regarding Met Council’s overreach” that will include a “call for action regarding this unelected body.”

Even supporters of the Met Council think change may be coming. Bell, for one, said he foresees some hybrid of elected and appointed council members in order to combine the benefits of each system. (Full disclosure: Bell is a member of MinnPost’s board of directors).

Likewise, former Met Council chair Curtis Johnson — who, like Bell, describes himself as a supporter of the council and its mission — has a hard time believing the council won’t be forced to change somehow. “Lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that some change in governance of the Met Council is becoming inevitable.”

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Go west

Should the Twin Cities go looking for other models for how the Met Council could function, it might look at Portland, Oregon. In fact, that’s the only place it can look.

Most metropolitan regions in the U.S meet federal requirements for regional government agencies with far weaker governing bodies that are known as Councils of Government (or COGs). But outside of some regional planning functions, and the authority to divvy up federal grant money, such groups are usually little more than discussion forums. “Everyone is there to make sure nothing happens,” joked Ethan Seltzer, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University who studies COGs.

Oregon was looking at creating a more-potent regional body than COGs around the same time Minnesota was. Both looked at creating an elected body; Portland opted for one, while Minnesota didn’t, going with an appointed council instead. Since then, no region in America has succeeded in duplicating either.

Alan Ehrenhalt, the former editor of Governing Magazine said there’s a reason for that. “Creating another layer of government is neither popular nor practical,” he said. And few who know the system — or the politics of regionalism  — think it could happen in the Twin Cities today.

The Met Council, then and now

When the Met Council was originally created by the state Legislature in 1967, it was in response to federal law requiring regional bodies to review loan and grant applications, writes Orfield in “Region: Planning the Future of the Twin Cities,” a book he co-authored with Thomas F Luce, Jr. “The tug-of-war between local governments attempting to preserve their own power and the growing need for comprehensive regional planning is the enduring political legacy of the Met Council,” write Orfield and Luce. 

Initially, the council was charged with crafting regional growth plans, and then to get local and regional land use, roads and sewer projects to conform to those plans. In those early years, it had the authority to approve budgets and plans of the regional transit agency and regional wastewater agency, but it wasn’t directly responsible for delivering those services.

By the early 1990s, however, it had become clear that the arrangement didn’t work very well. “The various regional entities and commissions were not cooperating with each other,” Orfield said. “They were actually fighting amongst themselves. In the midst of the war, we were able to consolidate them.”

His bill folded the transit and sewer agency into the council, creating the entity that exists today. Now, “more than 90 percent of council revenue comes from user charges, passenger fares, and state appropriations, primarily the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax,” according to council staff. “Of the council’s $80 million levy, more than 60 percent pays for parks and transit debt service.”

From the start, however, Orfield wanted an elected council but was not able to find enough votes, and other possible structures were floated without success.

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“It’s kind of like a lot of things with democracy,” Orfield said. “People are pretty clear in what they don’t like, but they’re not so clear with what they do like.”

How about making the county commissioners in the region the council with voting clout based on their populations? How about council appointments by the various local governments? If the governor is to appoint council members, shouldn’t they at least serve staggered terms so a newly elected governor has to wait — even win a second term — to replace the entire body? 

All were proposed. None succeeded.

Then, in 1994, Johnson, who was then chief of staff to Gov. Arne Carlson, got a call during a House-Senate conference committee asking if the governor would be in favor of appointing all Met Council members — and having them serve at his pleasure. It meant the governor, and all of his successors, would be able to remove council members at will. (Met Council members are confirmed by the state Senate, but they are rarely contested.)

Johnson said he knew his boss’s answer — but asked anyway.

No surprise, Carlson, as the man who would be given the power to pick and choose members, thought it was fine idea. What politician wouldn’t?

Johnson now says such sweeping appointment authority was a mistake. “It made the Met Council a function of the governor’s office,” he said.

The Metropolitan Council building on Robert Street in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Metropolitan Council building on Robert Street in St. Paul.

Each new governor could “clear the decks” or at least make sure they have enough votes for whatever their version of regionalism entailed, which reduces the sort of continuity required for long-term planning — and takes away the body’s independence.

“Any day Carlson could have called and said ‘I want you to stop this light rail stuff’ and we would have stopped it,” Johnson said. Instead, though Carlson was what Johnson described as a “rail skeptic,” he allowed the council to proceed with planning.

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Still, Orfield never really gave up the dream of an elected Met Council. “There’s nothing like this in the United States that has this much power that isn’t elected,” he said. Yet his attempts as a legislator to pass that change were either defeated on close votes or, when he finally succeeded, vetoed by Carlson. 

Opposition to the idea tended to come from the state Senate and metro-area county commissioners. “Both the Senate and the counties are sort of jealous of Met Council members,” Orfield said. “I think the senators feel an elected Met Council would be bigger dogs than them, and I think the counties do too.” 

Would elections matter?

What difference would having an elected Met Council make?

Orfield, who also counts himself among the believers in the council’s mission, said he thinks an elected council could be more bold, especially in enforcing the urban growth boundaries contained in the regional plan.

And any concerns that an elected council would be too partisan or gridlocked, Orfield said, is the price of doing business in a democracy: “Like a lot of things in government, it’s the least terrible solution.”  

Minneapolis Council Member Lisa Goodman, who has been a vocal opponent of the Met Council’s approved alignment for SWLRT through her district, said she doesn’t even need to mention light rail to explain why she thinks the council should be reformed.

Instead, she points to the on-going reconstruction of sewer lines in Minneapolis, which has resulted in residents having problems with vibration, foundation cracking and lack of access to their homes (among other things).

“When there’s a problem in Minneapolis, people know who to call,” Goodman said. That’s their council member. Not so with the Met Council, and its system isn’t really set up for them to handle constituent issues anyway. Staff members at Met Council headquarters are more concerned with finishing the project than dealing with problems. 

Goodman criticisms echoed the legislative auditor’s conclusions about the council and its decision-making credibility. “With a very large, complicated project, honesty and transparency are vital, especially when you have winners and losers,” she said. But she thinks the Met Council displayed neither honesty nor transparency when it came to making decisions about Southwest LRT.   

And yet, there are no shortage of arguments in favor of an appointed council, not the least of which comes from the Met Council Chair Susan Haigh, who cites the current council’s effectiveness in defending the way it currently does business: “If you look at the outcomes and the metrics, we do pretty well,” Haigh said, particularly when it comes to delivering services like transit and wastewater. “In fact, we do better than most regions of the country.”

Even the critical Legislative Auditor’s report said there are advantages to the status quo. “Transit in the region has operated relatively successfully thus far … and would likely continue to do so from riders’ perspectives,” the report stated. “Additionally, having appointed rather than elected members is more likely to result in regional, rather than parochial, decisions.”

That’s what Bell fears should the Met Council ever be elected: that it would become a hyper-political body whose ability to work through tough issues “are diminished … not enhanced,” due to being elected. “If you had an elected Met Council you’d get people on the extremes. It would be a mini-Legislature, and some would argue we already have one of those.”

Johnson said there are logical and fair arguments for both sides. He should know. Having previously argued for an elected council as executive director of the Citizens League, he argued against it as Carlson’s chief of staff. With an appointed council, “you have a wider range of people to pick from who would consider serving but would never run for the office.”

And Johnson thinks Orfield’s notion that an elected council would be more independent and more courageous isn’t borne out by the “risk-averse behavior” that is common among elected officials.

As least with the governor responsible for appointing the council, Johnson argues, he or she can be held accountable for the region’s success or failures. With the current Met Council, said Johnson, “The governor is effectively the mayor of the region.”

The Portland experience

In Portland, the Metro Council has power to enforce land use and growth decisions, said Portland State’s Seltzer, who has studied regional governance and has worked for the council there. But Portland’s regional planning agency does so carefully, even with the clout that comes from having elected members.

“It took us a long time to learn how to use it because it is so explosive,” Seltzer said. He is hesitant to say that any one form of council makeup is better. The Portland government succeeds because it has strong direction in state law and common goals among regional players.

An elected council “is not the most-important factor, though it is important,” he said. Any fears about the area’s council becoming overly polarized between urban and suburban interests have yet to be realized, Seltzer said, though it probably helps that the council has just six districts, with each containing both urban and suburban sections. 

In the Twin Cities, though, the Met Council is made up of representatives from 16 districts plus the chair, with sharper delineation between areas that might favor more highways and less density and areas that might want more mass transit and higher density. 

Why reform now?

So what could trigger turning the conversation about the Met Council into more than what Johnson labeled a “political parlor game?” 

Money.

If there is another push in the next session of the Legislature to double the regional transit sales tax to fund light rail and other transit projects, making the council more accountable is “inevitable,” said Johnson. 

Changes could range from full-on elections to allowing county commissioners to nominate people the governor could choose from.

In his audit of the agency, Legislative Auditor James Nobles proposed a hybrid: gubernatorial appointees serving alongside elected county commissioners and elected city officials. All would serve staggered terms so they couldn’t be replaced en masse when a new governor is elected. “Having a combination of local elected and appointed officials would provide the council with an effective mix of regional and local perspectives,” the audit stated. “Additionally, having local elected officials on the council would increase its credibility and accountability with transit stakeholders in the region.”

As leader and spokesperson for the council, and someone with a direct line to Gov. Mark Dayton, Met Council chair Haigh would likely have a significant voice regarding any changes. She brings a combination of experiences that makes her well situated for her current job. A Met Council staff attorney early in her career, she has also been an assistant Dakota County attorney, chief deputy Ramsey County attorney and an elected Ramsey County commissioner.

As someone who knows both the needs for regional and long-term thinking as well as the concerns of local government leaders, she thinks the current setup allows the council “to create the required vision to balance local concerns and the region’s needs.”

“I think our structure is pretty good,” she said. “I don’t know that it’s perfect.” Changes, however, are the Legislature’s prerogative, not the council’s.

As the longest serving chair, it seems appropriate that Bell gets the last word. He thinks some change is likely, just not too much. “People who say it should stay the way it is are naive,” he said. “And those who say it should change 100 percent should know that would create all sorts of problems.”