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In defense of the Met Council

Critics don’t appreciate the problems that gave rise to the much-maligned council’s creation — or that it remains a national model for regional planning.

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

For months, it seems, the Metropolitan Council has been under nearly constant attack: on the alignment of the Southwest Corridor light-rail transit line; on its 2040 regional growth plan; on the adequacy of its plans for suburban highways and the list goes on.

The council may well have made a few missteps along the way. But the sad fact is that there has been a serious erosion in political support for taking a regional approach to addressing regional challenges. The agency has become a popular whipping boy for critics on both the left and the right, for both urban and suburban interests.

For the Met Council, long viewed as a national model for regional planning and governance, the challenges may only grow. Members of the new state House Republican majority have indicated they will push for legislation to “rein in” the council, and it’s uncertain how DFLers will respond.

I admit to being biased. I was around for the creation of the council by the Minnesota Legislature in 1967. I reported on the council during its early — and some might say its best — years. I commented on its work as an editorial writer. And I served as the council’s public affairs director for eight years.

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Most of today’s critics do not fully appreciate the problems that gave rise to the council’s creation — by a Republican (then called “Conservative”) Legislature and a Republican governor:

  • By the early 1960s, this region was facing a major sewage treatment and disposal problem. Inadequately treated waste was being discharged into the Mississippi River, Lake Minnetonka and other regional waterways. Meanwhile, many developing suburbs were relying on backyard septic systems for sewage disposal. In 1959, the Minnesota Department of Health found that half of the private wells in 39 suburban communities were contaminated with septic waste.

  • The Twin Cities’ bus system was being driven into the ground by its private owners, who were raising fares while siphoning off the revenues for other, more lucrative, ventures. In 1970, when Twin City Lines was acquired by the public, two-thirds of its 635 buses were at least 15 years old and 86 of them were so old they were banned from the streets of Minneapolis.

  • Development was encroaching on forests, wetlands and other natural areas that were better suited for preservation as parks and open space. The site of what is now the 2,200-acre Lake Elmo Regional Park was being eyed for a shopping mall or a solid waste landfill.

  • Growing fiscal disparities were making it difficult many suburban communities to meet basic public service needs and providing unhealthy incentives for development at any cost.

With the help of a supportive Legislature, the Met Council attacked all of these problems, developing modern transit and wastewater treatment systems, working with the 10 cities and counties to create a 55,000-acre regional park system and supporting innovative legislation to reduce the tax-base disparities among Twin Cities communities.

More importantly, the 1967 law gave the Twin Cities a regional planning body to help ensure the “orderly and economic development” of the seven-county area and the efficient use of our expensive regional infrastructure. Only Portland has a body with similar powers, and these two regions are the envy of other major metro areas across the nation. Metro areas regularly send delegations of civic and business leaders to the Twin Cities to learn more about our regional model.

Easy political target

However, the Twin Cities Met Council is an easy political target because its members are appointed by the governor, not elected. When the council was created, floor amendments to provide for the election of its members failed narrowly in both houses. Since then, several efforts to provide for an elected council have been similarly unsuccessful.

The council is not the all-powerful agency some critics claim. While it has an $890-million annual operating budget and more than 4,000 employees, the council has limited taxing and borrowing powers. Its budget and programs regularly are scrutinized by multiple legislative committees. And it is on a very short political leash.

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Its 17 members not only are appointed by the governor, but also serve at his pleasure. Sixteen members represent districts of equal population and ostensibly govern the agency. But all major decisions are made by the chair in consultation with the governor’s office. The council can’t take a major action, propose legislation, request state funding or even issue a news release without approval of the governor’s office.  

Governors of both parties routinely have bypassed the council on major decisions affecting the region, most notably the location and financing of major sports facilities. (Does anyone really think this region needs five different, and often competing, sports venues?)

The Legislature also has fragmented responsibility for transit planning and operations, authorizing the creation of six suburban transit operations, seven county rail authorities and the Counties Transit Improvement Board. This not only has undermined the Met Council’s authority, but also has resulted in waste and inefficiency.

Among the monuments to this waste: The $320 million Northstar commuter rail line, which has yet to meet its first-year ridership projections while requiring double-digit operating subsidies per ride, and the $243 million purchase and renovation of St. Paul’s Union Depot, which serves just two Amtrak trains a day and — predictably — has failed to attract new tenants to its vast restaurant/retail space.

‘Council of governments’: parochial and ineffective

In the coming legislative session, critics may well attempt to eliminate the council or transform it into a council of governments (COG), with elected city and county officials serving as members. That would be a huge mistake. In metro areas across the country, COGs have proven to be parochial and ineffective.

“The COG is a discredited governing form,” says Curt Johnson, a former Met Council chair and a nationally known urban affairs consultant. “There are perhaps four or five effective COGs in this country. And none of them owns or operates the things the Met Council does.”

Former state Sen. Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota professor and author of several books on regionalism, agrees that COGs “haven’t worked very well.” Orfield, who unsuccessfully pushed for an elected council while serving in the Minnesota Senate, says he still believes its members need to be elected to gain political legitimacy.

“There is a certain respect for elected officials from other elected officials,” Orfield says.

It’s unlikely that the next Legislature will revive the idea of electing Met Council members. After all, their districts would be four times the size of a Minnesota House district and they might soon eclipse legislators in importance.

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However, the Legislature could go back to having council members appointed by the governor for fixed, staggered four-year terms — to give the council greater continuity and greater freedom to advocate on the region’s behalf.

Other ideas that should be on the table:

  • Making the position of council chair a full-time job. The position now pays just $61,400 a year and is considered part-time, but it simply can’t be done on a part-time basis, as past chairs have discovered. Current chair Sue Haigh has tried to perform her duties while also serving as president and CEO of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, a juggling act that no doubt has shortchanged both agencies as well as Haigh and her family.
  • Hiring a high-level planning director to help shape the council’s vision for the region. The council increasingly has been dominated by managers and administrators, while planners have slipped farther and farther down the bureaucratic ladder.  Staff work on the council’s most recent long-range growth plan, Thrive 2040, was led by a research manager with no background in planning. The council needs another planning guru like Robert Einsweiler or Oliver Byrum, who served the agency in its early years.
  • Reexamining the geographic area served by the council. The council was assigned responsibility for seven metro counties a half-century ago. By anyone’s estimation, the economic boundaries of the Twin Cities metro area have expanded well beyond seven counties to as many as 19. In four of the adjacent counties — Chisago, Isanti, Sherburne and Wright — 50 percent or more of the employed residents commute to jobs in the seven-county area, as this chart shows: 

County of Residence

County Total Workers

Number of Workers who Work in 7 County Region

Percent of Total County Workers

Chisago, MN

27,918

16,755

60.0%

Isanti, MN

19,248

10,181

52.9%

Sherburne, MN

45,954

23,327

50.8%

Wright, MN

62,492

36,104

57.8%

Mcleod, MN

17,653

5,279

29.9%

Sibley, MN

8,061

3,159

39.2%

Le Sueur, MN

14,509

5,514

38.0%

Rice, MN

31,477

11,132

35.4%

Goodhue, MN

23,357

6,654

28.5%

MN Subtotal

250,669

118,105

47.1%

Pierce, WI

14,497

1,711

11.8%

Polk, WI

23,118

4,841

20.9%

St. Croix, WI

44,408

19,660

44.3%

WI Subtotal

82,023

26,212

32.0%

Total

332,692

144,317

43.4%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau,2011 data

The metro area and neighboring counties need a way to coordinate their planning for growth, transportation, sewers, water supply and other issues. 

The Metropolitan Council was created with the support of leading business and civic leaders, the Citizens League, metro area officials in the League of Minnesota Cities and enlightened legislators of both political parties. It needs and deserves that same kind of support today.