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Met Council's next chair will be full-time

Met Council's next chair will be full-time
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Since the agency legislation went through a major revision in 1994 with broader duties and responsibilities, the chair of the 17-member Met Council has been part-time office.

If you want to be the new chair of the Metropolitan Council — overseeing the agency charged with regional planning, transportation, housing and wastewater — you're going to have to quit your day job.

That’s because the current Met Council Chair Susan Haigh’s announcement last week that she will leave the job after nearly four years in the post created an opportunity to change the nature of the position, which has long been classified as a part-time office.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would like the appointed head of the seven-county regional agency to be full-time, much like the other members of his cabinet.

That would be a change. Since the agency legislation went through a major revision in 1994 with broader duties and responsibilities, the chair of the 17-member Met Council has been a part-time office.

Even though the job posting doesn’t note the change, those who meet the application deadline of December 1 should be prepared to make it their full-time job. “The governor has the legal authority to make it full-time and he intends to,” said Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson. “He feels it merits a full-time position based on the responsibilities.”

The council chair job is listed in the state law covering cabinet-level salaries as jobs that can be paid up to 120 percent of the governor’s pay of $120,000.

Haigh, the chief executive officer and president of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, said she supports the move. “I’ve been working hard to make a part-time position work with my responsibilities at Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and it has been a challenge,” Haig said.

She said the responsibilities of the council have growth with the growth of the region and noted that it is currently in the midst of four major mass transit projects — expansions of both the Green Line and Blue Line light rail and the Gateway Corridor and Orange Line bus rapid transit routes.

“These projects require extensive engagement with the community, with business leaders and with elected officials,” Haigh said. “They require a lot of time and attention.”

That’s not to say that some who served didn’t devote more than part-time hours. But the compensation was almost half what the governor’s other cabinet members were paid, and came without benefits.

“It’s not full-time. It’s not even a job,” said Curtis Johnson who was the first chair of the council after it was reconstituted in 1994. The pay, about $61,000 now, was a stipend rather than a salary. Johnson, appointed by former Gov. Arne Carlson to be the council chair in 1995, said different chairs have been able to devote differing amounts of hours to the position. He estimates that he devoted 80 percent of his time, that Ted Mondale was able to give between 50 and 60 percent and that the longest-serving chair, Peter Bell, devoted “110 percent.”

Met Council Chair Sue Haigh
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Met Council Chair Sue Haigh

“Without anyone formally declaring it so, it has become a full time position,” Johnson said. “The scope of the council's work, the political tension that constantly swirls around it, and the competitive stakes for how the region's underlying assets get managed — all come together to make this responsibility something you cannot do well part time. Times change. Assumptions have to as well.”

When he left the position in 2010 after eight years, Peter Bell said he believed the chair should be full-time. He hasn’t changed his mind, and thinks the move isn’t the only change needed, that some change to how the rest of the council is selected should also be considered. “I also think the policy questions surrounding the Council go far beyond the full- or part-time status of the chair."

Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor who sponsored the bill that modernized the Met Council in 1994, said he thinks the chair should be a full-time part of the governor’s cabinet. “I think that would make a big difference. I think it is an inherently interesting job, but its time demands are really full time and require a pretty seasoned person.”

Haigh was considered just such a person when appointed by Dayton at the beginning of his first term. She was a Met Council staff attorney early in her career and has also been an assistant county attorney in Dakota County, chief deputy county attorney in Ramsey County and an elected Ramsey County commissioner.

But she said she doesn’t think she would have accepted the appointment in 2011 had it required her leaving her job with Habitat. She balanced her dual duties by scheduling daytime Met Council meetings for Monday mornings and all-day Wednesday.

“I’m not sure I would have taken (a full-time position) because I am committed to my work at Habitat,” she said. “I’m very excited about my work there.”

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Comments (3)

Met Council

As the Senate author and major organizer of the 1994 legislation, I am disappointed that no one recognizes that the governance change was designed after County government with a Board of equals selecting a rotating chair with a strong staff administrator position . My bill did not call for a separate chair but I think the men on the conference committee all expected to be named head of the Council and inserted the part time Chair position. The bill that Orfield passed out of the House called for the election of the Waste Control Commission and not much else as I recall. Recognizing that an elected council would not pass either chamber or be signed by the Governor, accountability was to rest with the Governor by his coterminous appointments.
There is still no support for an elected Council and a Council of Government (COG) is still a bad idea. With over 200 local units of government in the region, how does a COG increase accountability?

Elected Council

Where is "no support for an elected Council?" In the legislature?
I think it makes sense for the Governor to appoint a full-time chair, but the rest of the Council Board should be elected. That would bring more visibility, better transparency, and greater authority to accomplish the mission. Many have called for such change.

Elected Council

I have no doubt that some have called for an elected council, but it doesn't strike me as "many." By that standard, there have also been many who have recommended that we stay the course as the present system is working just fine.

The problem with an elected council is you run into the exact same problems as our legislature: political infighting. You end up with one faction that wants to move ahead and another who wants to move in an entirely different direction. If they don't get their way, then they become obstructionists and shut down the process.

Sound familiar?

Simply electing someone in no way automatically sprinkles pixie dust on the candidates and bestows visibility, transparency, or authority on them. Those functions come through the process and the governor, not an election.