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A bill to reform the Met Council will probably be vetoed. That doesn’t mean a lot of people still don’t have problems with the Met Council

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Under Senate File 2809 — which was chiefly sponsored by Sen. Eric Pratt and Rep. Tony Albright, both Republicans from Prior Lake — the Met Council’s governing board would consist of a combination of county and city officials.

Republican sponsors of a bill to remake the Metropolitan Council are prepared for a veto.

Unlike the surprise that met last week’s decision to scuttle the two biggest pieces of legislation coming out of the 2018 session of the Minnesota Legislature — a tax conformity bill and the Mega-omnibus bill — Gov. Mark Dayton cannot be accused of being less than clear on this issue.

Dayton has long opposed any changes to the governance of the Met Council, which is currently overseen by 16 district representatives and a full-time chair, all of whom are appointed by the governor. Giving up that power voluntarily seems unlikely, especially when Dayton sees the effort as one driven by partisanship.

Senate File 2809 would substantially alter the governing board, making it a federation of metro area county and city officials. But the bill also represents the latest iteration of a long-running argument about the regional policy-making, transit and planning agency: whether the Met Council sufficiently represents, and responds, to those it serves.

UPDATE: Dayton vetoed the bill Wednesday. 

More power to city and county officials

As of now, the board that oversees the Met Council is made up of 17 people appointed by the governor, albeit subject to Senate confirmation: 16 come from from districts of roughly equal population plus the board chair. That chair acts as a quasi-commissioner in the governor’s cabinet, advising him on regional issues, especially transit, including light rail.

Under Senate File 2809 — which was chiefly sponsored by Sen. Eric Pratt and Rep. Tony Albright, both Republicans from Prior Lake — the Met Council’s governing board would consist of a combination of elected county and city officials. Representation would not be based on population, however. Anoka, Dakota, Washington, Carver and Scott counties would each have one commissioner, while — in a slight nod toward its size relative to the other counties — Hennepin County would get two: one coming from within Minneapolis and one from without.

Cities in each of the current 16 council districts would form a council and choose one elected council member from among themselves. (A provision in the Senate version of the bill that gave the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul their own appointee was eventually removed from the bill.)

One change to the bill — made during the conference committee negotiations after being suggested by DFL Sen. Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids — would give the governor the power to appoint the chair of the council.

Pratt said he hoped it would make the bill more attractive to Dayton. “The governor wanted it and we agreed to it,” Pratt said. “I think it was important for us to agree to it to show him our willingness to work with him.”

Such details, however, may end up being inconsequential if Dayton does what he has repeatedly said he would do: veto any changes to the makeup of the council.  

Could Congress force Dayton’s hand?

Pratt and Albright met with Dayton before the bill passed. One purpose was to try to convince the governor that the dynamic of the debate could change if an amendment currently part of a federal appropriations bill in the U.S. House succeeds.

That amendment, authored by U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Woodbury, would end the Met Council’s long-standing exemption from a federal requirement that regional bodies that distribute federal transportation and planning dollars be elected. The amendment would have to survive negotiations on a larger measure, a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, for it to be a problem for the Met Council.

Lewis told MinnPost that he is confident that his amendment will survive that process in the Senate, even though one or both of Minnesota’s two Democratic senators might be inclined to remove it. “There’s a good shot,” Lewis said, claiming that if the amendment is included in the Senate’s version of the FAA reauthorization bill, it is likely to remain when House and Senate lawmakers meet to work out differences in a conference committee.

Dayton has written to the state’s congressional delegation as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell describing the history of the exemption, which dates to the mid-1970s. Congress has allowed the current Met Council makeup as long as the distribution of federal money for transportation, transit and non-motorized transportation is decided by locally elected officials.

In practice, the federal government only cares when the council acts as what is called a metropolitan planning organization, which makes up a relatively small part of the functions of the Met Council. The state Legislature created something called the Transportation Advisory Board in 1974 to make those decisions, with the Met Council empowered only to give an up or down vote to approve. And no one involved in the process can ever recall a time that the Met Council didn’t ratify the choices of the TAB.

The bill would eliminate the TAB since those duties could be performed under federal law by the new council.

Still, Pratt said Dayton listened to their concerns. “I do think there is opening for conversation,” he said. “It was a very cordial meeting.” But Pratt said the governor, who is in his final year in office, said that he thinks this is a decision that a new governor to make. Pratt said that Dayton also doesn’t feel the urgency that he and Albright feel.

“I can’t speculate whether the governor thinks the [federal] amendment is not going to go through,” Pratt said. Should it survive and become law, however, Pratt said it could trigger a special session to pass something similar to his language. “I’m hoping he’ll have a change of heart and come back and negotiate with us.”

DFLers want reform, too

While criticism of the Met Council over the years has come from both parties, the loudest attacks have more recently come from Republicans, especially GOP legislators and local officials representing the suburban and exurban areas of the Twin Cities metro. A coalition of cities and counties from those areas support the changes embodied in the bill, as does the Metro Governance Transparency Initiative, which is made up of officials from Dakota, Scott, Carver and Anoka counties.

In response, Democrats, local government officials from Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties and Metro Cities opposed the bill. Democrats said they feared the board setup called for in the Pratt-Albright bill — a federation of governments system with local elected officials serving on the regional body —  would engender conflicts when dealing with issues that might help or hurt their local governments. “They will have two oaths of office,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. “They will have two fiduciary duties that may at times completely conflict with each other.”

There was also a concern that a body meant to think regionally would instead become a competition of provincial interests.

Current Met Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff told the conference committee reconciling the House and Senate versions at the Capitol that Dayton does not support any proposal that isn’t supported by a broad range of local governments. And Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said not a single city or county covered by his district supports the measure.

Despite all that, sponsors pushed the bill through both houses in the final weekend of the session. It passed the Senate 36-30 and the House 72-48.

None of which is to say that all Democrats think the current format of the Met Council is a good thing, however. Some Minneapolis Democrats have long complained about the way the council selected and pushed the current route for Southwest Light Rail Transit, for example.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, has endorsed a system where all council members are elected by voters from council’s current 16 districts. “If we want to solve all the problems that have been articulated, we maybe should consider an elected Met Council,” Dibble said. “That provides the transparency, the clear line of authority to enact what are effectively laws that the region has to live by.”

That was rejected by majority Republicans, with Pratt saying that it would create another office where big fundraising and special interests would exert too much power. He cited high-cost elections for the regional council in Portland, the only regional government in the country with elected council members.

Sam Brodey contributed to the reporting of this story.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Joyce Prudden on 05/29/2018 - 12:10 pm.

    Ramsey County

    Wouldn’t they get a representative on the Republican’s council?

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/29/2018 - 12:12 pm.

    My Laugh For the Day

    Sen. Pratt, a Republican, is concerned about “another office where big fundraising and special interests would exert too much power”.

    What a jokster that Pratt!

  3. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 05/29/2018 - 12:54 pm.

    I posted this concern on a 2015 MinnPost article about Met Council reform, and it seems just as applicable now:

    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.

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 05/29/2018 - 01:06 pm.

    Representative government

    Although the governor now appoints the commissioners, the changes proposed by the legislators from Prior Lake, like those in Congressman Lewis’s amendment, would arguably make the Met Council even less representative.

    Senator Dibble rightly favors going to a Council elected directly by voters in those 16 districts whose boundaries are determined for equal population.

    If citizens throughout the metropolitan area, including those in Dakota, Scott, Carver, Anoka and Washington counties, want attention to their issues and problems, they’d more likely get it from commissioners they elect than county or municipal intermediaries.

    Arguments in favor of having such a major level of government that’s neither accountable to citizens nor representative–too partisan, too expensive to have elections, etc.–seem more appropriate for countries like Saudi Arabia or China..

  5. Submitted by John Adams on 05/29/2018 - 01:17 pm.

    Met Council effectiveness

    The persistent political tensions that have faced the Met Council for 50 years are these: (1) the “here vs. there” challenge – i.e., cities and counties competing for resources with elected leaders behaving as though if one place prospers it’s at the expense of another; and (2) the “now vs. then” challenge – i.e., elected officials trying to please current constituents while largely ignoring the interests of those who will be living here 10, 25, or 50 years from now.

    The first challenge might be muted if each of the 16 Met Council districts (half of them on the St. Paul side of the metro area; half on the Minneapolis side) was shaped like a slice of pie, each originating downtown and extending outward to the edge of the metro area, each district containing part of the inner city, some of the outer city, some of the first-tier suburbs, part of the outer suburbs, and some of the exurban area. If each council district contained this variety of geographical settings, each district representative would be obliged to acknowledge and address the current and future needs of each type of place.

    The second challenge – how to best represent the “now” vs. the “then” – means balancing today’s wants and needs against investing and building for tomorrow’s residents and businesses. The best way to accomplish this set of goals is to continue present practice and have the governor appoint council members who will be freed from electoral pressures and free in metro planning and operations to balance present needs and wants with what they understand will serve the metro area of the future and its residents.

  6. Submitted by Andrew Olson on 05/29/2018 - 03:26 pm.

    SF 2809 Unfairly Favors Smaller Municipalities

    I agree with Sen. Dibble. There is another major flaw of SF 2809 not mentioned in this article. If signed by Gov. Dayton the Met Council would have 28 members, consisting of 2 county commissioners from Hennepin County, 1 county commissioner from each of the remaining 6 metro-area counties, the state Commissioner of Transportation or his/her designee as well as 3 people appointed by the Commissioner, and 1 local elected official from each of the 16 Met Council districts. Those local elected officials would be appointed by a municipal committee established for each of the 16 districts, and those municipal committees would consist of 1 person appointed by each city or town within the committee’s Met Council district. The problem is that the votes of members of the municipal committees will not be weighted by the population of the city or town they represent. For example, within District 13, the cities of Sunfish Lake and Lilydale will have as much say in who is appointed to represent District 13 as will the cities of South St. Paul and West St. Paul, which dwarf Sunfish Lake and Lilydale in terms of population. That makes absolutely zero sense and Gov. Dayton should veto this bill on that basis alone.

  7. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/29/2018 - 04:22 pm.

    I spent ten years living in Portland, Oregon, where the Metro Council is elected, not appointed.

    The six electoral districts are independent of and different from any other local government districts, and all but one include both urban and suburban voters. It is chaired by a president who is elected region-wide.

    The right wingers (of which there are more in Oregon than outsiders imagine, although they are mostly libertarian-leaning) hate the Metro Council and keep trying to abolish it, but has been doing an excellent job in one of my main areas of concerning, expanding and improving public transit.

    Tri-Met, the transit agency under Metro’s control, already has frequent service on most arterials and is working on instituting 24-hour service on some of the routes that take people to shift work. It has built five light rail lines (once a novelty, now a routine part of the landscape) since 1986 and is working on a sixth, but the bus system ties everything together and makes it not just possible but easy to live without a car.

    Note that this work is carried out by an *elected* council. Anti-transit, pro-highway expansion candidates run but tend to lose 2 to 1.

    A weakness of the Twin Cities’ Metro Council is that it is appointed by the governor, so potentially, you could have the entire Council replaced every four years. A lack of continuity is built into the system. It is also fair to say that an appointed group is can be out of line with what the residents of a given region want.

    Following Portland’s example may be difficult, since we lack an urban growth boundary, and our suburbs stretch farther into the countryside and cover seven counties (three in Portland). For each councilor to represent both urban and suburban voters would take some clever boundary drawing.

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/29/2018 - 09:03 pm.

    One person, one vote.

    Why should Scott and Carver Counties be given the same voting power as Minneapolis and Hennepin County. More gerrymandering by Republicans to advantage their party. If you want to elect members, fine – keep the equal population districts that exist today.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/30/2018 - 11:11 am.

    Ego, money and race

    I spent half a century in suburban St. Louis, the home of narrow-minded parochialism, at least in the Midwest. The only thing the 90+ municipalities in St. Louis County have been able to agree upon is that raw sewage is bad, so there’s a “Metropolitan Sewer District.” Somehow, they built a single light-rail line from the airport to downtown, and then miles to the east to Scott Air Force Base.

    That’s it. Every other metro issue is one that involves the egos of the officials running those 90+ municipalities, many/most of which have no reason to exist except to provide a delusional feeling of “local control” and micromanagement of community development, whether equitable or not.

    That personal egos are involved there – and here – should go without saying, and cooperation, especially to devise regional solutions to regional problems, often requires that public officials behave as grownups instead of children. The more parochial and narrow the government, the more difficult that sort of grownup behavior becomes, because every elected official **wants** to be an elected official, so deferring to the wishes, and especially the prejudices, of one’s constituents becomes a matter of habit, even when doing so is not in the best interests of either the area as a whole, or even the municipality in question.

    A sizable part of why regional cooperation is so difficult is that modern life requires funding. There ain’t no free lunch, and every paved road, sewage treatment plant, underground pipe, public water supply, police force or traffic signal has to be paid for. The source is typically tax dollars, and the common delusion is that, if only we didn’t have to meet the standards imposed upon us unfairly by that evil regional body, whatever it’s called, our taxes would be lower. Horsefeathers. We’d still need it, but it would cost more, and not be done as well, because we’ve insisted on going it alone instead of in cooperation with – gasp – others. I say that, by the way, as an old, retired white guy on a fixed income. I don’t like taxes any more than your libertarian uncle, but facilities and services have to be paid for, and this is the 21st century, not the 18th. I want facilities and services.

    During my years as a planning commissioner in suburban Denver, I was involved in the expansion of the light rail system there, an expansion made orders of magnitude more difficult because of the weakness of DRCOG – the Denver Regional Council of Governments – which is constructed precisely as those who want to dramatically alter the Met Council’s makeup (i.e., Republicans) have proposed. DRCOG is made up of local elected officials, all of whom are facing two masters – their local constituency and the needs of the region, which at least occasionally conflict. If they want to continue in office, and most do, the local constituency is going to win far more often than not, at the expense of the well-being of the larger region. Peter’s line that “…There was also a concern that a body meant to think regionally would instead become a competition of provincial interests” is absolutely on point and phrased much too mildly.

    Almost finally, there’s a subtext here that is something like the elephant in the room. That’s the persistent combination of a lack of workforce/affordable housing and residential segregation that’s readily apparent to anyone not a native of the Twin Cities or Minnesota. This metro area is just as segregated, residentially, as my former home of St. Louis, and along similar lines. Expensive, nearly-all-white suburbs surrounding a pair of cities that are racially, culturally and economically diverse. If the Met Council can require certain changes in segregationist zoning policies, people “not like us” will be able to live in areas outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul. We can’t have that happen. Apartments mean crime. Light rail means people carrying stolen televisions (on their laps) back to their ghetto apartments from the nice neighborhood from whence they were stolen. Am I over-generalizing? Of course, but not by orders of magnitude. Most suburbs here are predominantly white, and it’s neither by accident nor coincidence. It’s baked into local zoning and development regulations – witness how few Section 8 housing units, much less developments, are built in places like Maple Grove or Eden Prairie, Lino Lakes or Lakeview.

    Could the Met Council use some revisions? Sure. Personally, I’d like to see council member terms staggered, so that there was some continuity between and among succeeding Met Councils as administrations change in St. Paul. The Citizens League suggested just such a change. I’m skeptical, but willing to consider electing Met Council members from specific districts instead of being gubernatorial appointees. Beyond that, however, I’ve lived in enough other places for long enough periods of time to understand that “local control” is a two-edged sword, and is, just as often as not, driven by political ideology rather than genuine concern about the health of the region as a whole. I think that’s exactly the case here. I’m not at all convinced by the arguments I’ve heard and read from a variety of Republican officials, in and out of the legislature, that the region would be better off and more efficiently run if the Met Council were made up of locally-elected officials.

  10. Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/30/2018 - 05:55 pm.

    More poison pill bills

    If the Republican legislature was serious about reform, they’d send Dayton serious bills. Of course he’s going to veto this nonsense.

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