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Nobody likes the Met Council

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A bill introduced by state Sen. David Osmek, center, would require the governor’s nominees to the Met Council receive the endorsement of a majority of the city councils in their district.

As expected, Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature have filed a handful of bills this year to “rein in” the Metropolitan Council, the body that oversees regional transit and planning in the Twin Cities.

Less expected: that the co-sponsors for at least one of the bills are Democrats.

For Republicans, proposals to curtail some of the Met Council’s power — from removing its budgeting independence to preventing it from expanding light rail — are part of the party’s effort to fulfill campaign pledges. So it wasn’t a surprise that the new House Republican majority, many of whose members ran on claims that Democrats favored urban interests over those of Greater Minnesota, created a special committee to examine the Met Council.

“The House leadership is responding to the angst of many of our members that the Met Council is something far more aggressive than anything we’ve seen in the past,” said Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, before rolling out the GOP bills. 

What is a surprise is that one of the bills to reform the Met Council has bipartisan interest, if not all-out support. A bill introduced by Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, would require the governor’s nominees to the Met Council to receive the endorsement of a majority of the city councils in their district. Those same city councils would also be empowered to remove council appointees if they fell out of favor. 

Of the four cosponsors signing onto Osmek’s bill, three are DFLers. And one is not only a champion of regionalism and light rail, but the chair of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee: Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis.  

Frustration fuels reform efforts

Dibble recognized the disconnect between his politics and his name appearing on the bill. At a recent breakfast discussion with Gov. Mark Dayton’s new Met Council Chair Adam Duininck, he asked the mostly DFL room not to be alarmed. 

“I’m on that bill but only as a way to keep the conversation going,” Dibble said, and that he would have his own bills on council governance. Still, Dibble agrees with the premise behind the Osmek proposal, that the members of the Met Council do not spend enough time building relationships with the people in their districts, especially elected officials. 

Osmek, in announcing his bill at a GOP press conference last month, said he is frustrated that Met Council members from suburban areas have not done enough to hear concerns about housing policies and the distribution of transportation resources. 

He said one of the Met Council members from his area wasn’t concerned about asking local governments for an endorsement. “The reason is, she works with her cities. She goes to meetings and she goes to mayor’s meetings,” Osmek said. “She’s very deeply involved. On the other hand, I have another Met Council representative from my area that’s a ghost.”

State Sen. Scott Dibble
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Scott Dibble speaking at a recent breakfast discussion as Met Council Chair Adam Duininck looks on.

Dibble plans to file two bills Thursday that would go even further than Osmek’s. One would give local councils and mayors in each district the power to select their own council member, not just approve the governor’s pick. The other bill would subject the council members to election.

“There’s been a break in the tradition … of that on-going dialogue and relationship building,” Dibble said. Without those relationships, it is harder for the Met Council to explain decisions and understand concerns from local governments throughout the seven-county Metro area.

“To negotiate, that’s really complicated and takes a lot of work; and that relationship building hasn’t occurred really meaningfully in quite awhile,” Dibble said.

The origins of Dibble’s bill trace back to 2011, when he and Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, asked Dayton to look for council members with “political chops” who would go to bat  for the council’s policies — but also work with local governments to explain them.

“The Met Council’s political engagement is going to have to be very smart and very robust,” the pair wrote at the time to Dayton’s nominating committee for Met Council members. “Harnessing energy from the grassroots and from the leadership of the region is our only way forward.” Dibble said he thinks the advice was generally ignored.

Cities want more say

Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who sponsored the breakfast panel with Dibble and Duininck, said she also supports the mission of the Met Council, but thinks the interests of cities — both urban and suburban ­— need a more-formal place in decision making.

“I don’t think it has a partisan nature to it, wanting more interaction with the Met Council,” Glidden said. She said she still supports a resolution adopted by the Minneapolis Council as Dayton was taking office and considering appointees to the 16-member council. That resolution called on Dayton to consider people with demonstrated interest in regional issues such as through service on local government boards or commissions.

The same resolution supported a change in the makeup of the council itself with a majority coming from the ranks of city and county elected officials, a council of governments format used in other regions of the country. The governor would appoint a minority of council members who would stand for Senate confirmation.

Duininck has acknowledged the need to rebuild working relationships with local governments and is in the midst of a seven-week, seven-county tour to hear from residents and politicians. “When the council is under siege in the way that it is right now, it raises questions about its legitimacy and I want to bolster the legitimacy of the organization because the mission is so important,” Duininck told the breakfast audience. He said council members who do not engage with the residents and elected officials in their districts aren’t raising that legitimacy and that “sets the council back in terms of our priorities.”

But while Dayton is open to governance changes in general, Duininck said the governor is opposed to some key suggestions for the Met Council, such as altering the governor’s sole authority to pick members and to stagger their terms so that a new governor can’t immediate replace the chair and all 16 members.

“At the end of the day, he is responsible for the actions of the Met Council, and he thinks he should have the authority to appoint the Met Council,” Duininck said.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/11/2015 - 10:54 am.

    Having an appointed Metro Council is a bad idea

    because its composition could potentially change completely every four years. This makes long-range planning (its function) extremely difficult.

    Council members should be elected, but not by city councils, since that would give the outer suburbs more sway than their populations warranted and leave the cities and inner suburbs with the scraps.

    Electoral districts that included both inner cities and suburbs would yield councilors who had to balance the needs of both types of constituents.

    Portland has an elected Metro Council, and the elections are open enough that one year a “guerrilla” candidate defeated an “old pol” who was believed to be too much in the pockets of the developers. The upstart won with contributions averaging $50, making him a real grassroots choice.

    There’s a vocal minority, spurred on by talk radio, that hates the Metro Council, but in recent elections, candidates who say “Let’s scrap this transit and planning nonsense and build more freeways and subdivisions” have been defeated 2 to 1.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/11/2015 - 11:16 am.

    Met Council

    I would vehemently oppose any of these proposed changes to the Met Council governance. The reason being is that right now it’s effective as an independent body, which puts it above the petty conflicts that governs our politics these days. Making the council appointed by and beholden to individual city interests just puts the Met Council into the very trenches it was designed to stay out of.

    The Met was originally created to serve as a regional body, one that could create a plan for growth across the Twin Cities. Shoving the board back down to the city level just promotes tribalism, a system where individual cities grumble about how much of the pie they’re personally getting. That just fosters an “us vs them” mentality that benefits no one. Woodbury grumbles that Eden Prairie is getting more funding than they are and Lakeville complains about both of them. We need a body that can rise above all this petty bickering.

    What’s really driving this revisionist mentality is the outlying suburbs want more roads, highways, and sewer connections so they can build more highly subsidized housing developments. It’s pure land speculation, folks. They have open farm fields and they want to plop houses on them, thereby increasing their value. And they realize that there’s only so much money to go around, so they want to rob light rail and the inner city to get what they want.

    Don’t be fooled by their BS. Follow the money so you know why this issue is really being brought up in the first place. We’ve invested heavily in freeways for over 60 years. Now it’s time to put a little equity in the system and spend a couple of dollars on light rail.

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 02/12/2015 - 08:43 am.

      This is exactly it. The suburban development interests and the city governments that rely upon them know their business model is entirely dependent on government subsidy via infrastructure and they don’t want to share it. Even though you get far more bang for your buck with dense infill in an urban environment, that does nothing for the balkanized suburbs that want nothing more than to stab their neighbors in the back and keep the central cities down. They see all other municipalities as competition, not peers to work hand in hand with.

      Honestly, the met council lost a lot of face and public confidence with some of the really poor planning decisions they made with upcoming light rail expansions. The people in the city who normally tolerate the suburban pandering as a give-and-take part of having a regional level of planning got completely screwed on both of the upcoming transit expansions, meaning there’s essentially no major improvements to transit infrastructure for Minneapolis for the next couple decades. This comes while the city is actively increasing its density and relying on an already inadequate inner-city transit system. The SW and Bottineau lines are expensive park and ride giveaways to the suburbs with little-to-no benefit to the city, meanwhile the best we can hope for is a streetcar that we pay for ourselves and that will barely improve existing bus service and that the met council was reluctant to even let happen.

      The fact that transit is far more effective in a dense area is lost on the met council, but worse yet they don’t even do proper due diligence when planning, as evidenced by the SLP freight reroute debacle or ridiculous ridership estimates presented in their studies. Many of us who support their mission and the idea of the met council have been left feeling they’re somewhere between incompetent and ineffective. Switching them to being elected (whether by popular vote or some other level of elected government) will really only make that worse since they’ll be spending even more time pandering and less time actually contemplating the issues they have a say in.

      At this point I’d almost support blowing up the met council and starting from scratch with just Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Sell the water/sewage connections to the far-flung exurbs with a mark-up to pay for infrastructure improvements here or let them build their own systems. The current status quo is just enforcing the extraction of money from the economic engines for use subsidizing unsustainable exurban growth patterns and it needs to stop. Unfortunately most of the current proposals make it worse.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 02/11/2015 - 12:17 pm.

    Elect them!

    Why the heck not elect the Met Council Commissioners? Let the Governor appoint the Chair and have the citizens elect the others, according to a population-based geographical pattern, with perhaps some elected at large.

  4. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 02/11/2015 - 01:53 pm.

    Majority of CC = unequal representation

    While it seems like a good idea on face (even for Mpls … no more Annette Meekses representing DFL areas)… I have a major concern about the proposed legislation. It is not reasonable that a city council of a 400 person municipality should have the same veto power as a city council of a 400,000 person municipality.

    The problems don’t present themselves on face, but consider the implications for some districts within the Met Council. District 13 covers roughly a third of St. Paul, maybe 100,000 residents, but it also includes the municipalities of Lilydale (Pop. 623), Sunfish Lake (Pop. 521), and Mendota (Pop. 198), Newport (Pop. 3435), and St. Paul Park (Pop 5279).

    Does it seem reasonable that city councils of five municipalities, representing roughly 10,000 constituents, should be able to override a city council representing 100,000 constituents and three other city councils representing over 50,000 constituents? Absolutely not.

    Likewise, as a resident of District 8, which probably has at least 100,000 Minneapolitans, I find it concerning that the CC of St. Anthony (Pop. 8226) would essentially have veto rights over the Mpls CC which would be representing my interests on the council.

    Reform may be needed, and some of these ideas are good, but giving city councils veto authority without population parity amounts to disenfranchisement for those of us who live in larger cities.

  5. Submitted by Chelle Blakely on 02/11/2015 - 04:31 pm.

    No Elections Please

    Although having an elected Council sound nice, the history of the met council seems to have purposely created non elected members so they could do what is right for the entire area rather than just their constituency. It almost sounded like a way for our legislators to pass the buck and not get blamed (and not reelected) with the complicated NIMBY type decisions.

    While I may have concerns about some of the Met Council’s proposals, I fear that if they were elected, or even regionally approved, we would have the same kind of gridlock we see at the legislature. Someone has to look at the overall best interests of the community, not their individual neighborhood, city, constituency, etc. I agree with Mr. Hintz, we need a group that can rise above the petty bickering and do things that benefit the entire region even when someone or some place doesn’t like it.

  6. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 02/11/2015 - 05:42 pm.

    The fact that the politicians

    Don’t like the Met Council is the number 1
    reason for leaving the council structure alone.
    We do NOT need another pathetic political

  7. Submitted by David Markle on 02/12/2015 - 08:32 pm.

    Pathetic political bodies

    And the appointed Met Council is not another pathetic political body?

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 02/13/2015 - 04:01 pm.

      No the Met Council is not

      A political body like the legislature which allows it to make proper decisions without the political bs

  8. Submitted by David Markle on 02/15/2015 - 11:43 am.

    It’s not accountable.

    To repeat, having an elected Met Council would make the body more transparent and accountable, and give it the public mandate it needs to do its job. The Met Council has often not made “proper decisions,” two cases in point being the mishandling of the SW Corridor and Central Corridor LRT projects. In the latter, the Met Council utterly failed its responsibilitiy to the region by caving to St. Paul’s wish to promote development on five intersections, thus spoiling the billion-dollar line as a regional rapid transit link. They certainly paid no attention to my efforts to alert them to that fact.

    Which brings us to the immediate practical side: as things stand now for most of us who don’t happen to know a Commissioner, we might as well be dealing with a Masonic Lodge within the Vatican.

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