The Metropolitan Council has long been a target of legislative Republicans who have complained about everything from cost overruns and delays on the Southwest Light Rail Transit project to limits on growth and development in suburban cities.
Rarely do they reference the chair and the members of the council without the preface “the unelected.”
But a new effort to impose sweeping changes on the regional government body isn’t being spearheaded by Republicans. Instead, the chairs of the House and Senate Transportation committees, Minneapolis DFLers both, want the Met Council members and its chair to run for office, rather than be appointed by the governor.
Sen. Scott Dibble Monday outlined his Senate File 1624 before the committee he leads. It would create 17 new districts across the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. Elections for four-year, nonpartisan positions would begin in 2024. Once elected, the 17 members would select a chair from among themselves who would serve a two-year term.
The House version is sponsored by Rep. Frank Hornstein. Both Dibble and Hornstein, though strong supporters of transit and the light rail program in general, have been critics of how the Met Council sited SWLRT, how it treated residents along the route and how it has managed the project. SWLRT has seen an explosion in its budget and has delayed completion several times. The 14.5-mile, $2.74 billion line between Target Field and Eden Prairie is now set to open in 2027.
The Office of Legislative Auditor is currently conducting an assessment of how the Met Council has managed the project.
Dibble told his committee that the Met Council is unique — a paradox — among regional governments across the U.S. and unique among any governmental entities in Minnesota. Only the Portland, Oregon, region has a similar council, but its council members are elected. Dibble said the council is both a political subdivision of the state like a city or county but also a cabinet-level agency with a full-time chair appointed by the governor. It also has broad authority over land use, housing, wastewater and transit with some taxing authority, as well.
“Such substantial powers should be subject to … those who hold elective office, who are accountable for such power,” Dibble said. Instead they take their lead from governors and their appointed chairs.
“I’ve had conversations with the council members. They feel constrained from stepping outside the lane that’s been prescribed to them by the governor, the chair and the regional administrator,” Dibble said.
Also testifying Monday was Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor who has written about regional governance and was a state senator and author in 1994 of the current Met Council structure.
“I can tell you … there’s nothing like this in the United States that has this much broad discretionary authority and taxing power,” Orfield said. “There’s nothing even close to it anywhere in the United States.”
Orfield said that both he and then-Rep. Tim Pawlenty wanted the council to be elected but couldn’t find the votes for any governance model. A bill with such an elected council did pass by a single vote in the Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. Arne Carlson. Finally, a plan to have governors appoint all members including the chair was raised. Carlson thought that was a fine idea and the bill passed in that form. That structure, however, made the council a function of the administration with council members appointed anew each term and chairs serving as though they were a member of the cabinet.
Most issues brought before the part-time council are adopted unanimously or with a single negative vote.
An illustration of that comes amidst the Dibble/Hornstein bills. The Met Council and Chair Charlie Zelle did not take a position on the bill, perhaps because Gov. Tim Walz is supportive of the concept of an elected council.
“The governor is open to governance reform and any efforts to make the Met Council more accountable,” said spokesperson Claire Lancaster. Writing for “the Walz-Flanagan Administration,” Zelle wrote the committee primarily to raise a technical issue raised by the bill. The Met Council serves as the Metropolitan Planning Organization under federal transportation law that decides how various federal dollars are distributed in metro areas. While federal law requires those regional bodies to be elected or be filled by elected local officials, the Met Council benefits from a unique statutory exception. That exception allows an unelected body to make the decisions as long as it relies on a Transportation Advisory Board to make recommendations.
Any new body would need to meet federal requirements and also figure out a way to include portions of Sherburne and Wright counties that are part of the region but not within the geography of the Met Council.
“Any potential governance change adds complexity and uncertainty in federal grants,” Zelle wrote. “If the redesignation process is contentious or delayed this could slow or affect discretionary grants … Federal agencies look for stability and cohesion in any region seeking competitive grant awards.”
Dibble’s bill was endorsed by Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene, who also chairs the regional rail authority that is funding much of the SWLRT project in partnership with the Met Council. Greene has been battling the council over where the money will come to cover the latest $500 million budget shortfall. While she said she values the role the Met Council plays in transit, water quality, affordable housing and regional services, “the council’s current structure makes it beholden to statewide politics and statewide interests.
“An elected council will be more accountable to the district and the voters and to the region that it serves,” Greene said.
But the bill was opposed by some suburban mayors, including those from Edina, Savage and Minnetonka as well as by the Association of Metropolitan Municipalities known as Metro Cities. Savage Mayor Janet Williams said the current system under which local government officials interview and make recommendations to the governor on the council members for each area works well.
“The process is rigorous, balanced and consistent with the Met Council charge to provide regional service,” Williams told the committee. In a letter, Edina Mayor James Hovland said the current model “is a true and distinct regional governance model, free of the clashes of partisan loyalties, party politics and parochialism.”
Republicans on the committee, including some longtime critics of the Met Council, had kind words for the bill.
“I don’t know of any other taxing authority that’s not elected that spends this much money,” said Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault. He said given the politics of the Twin Cities, elected members might not change the overall direction of the Met Council, “but I think it does make more sense to have it elected so there’s some accountability.”
Dibble left the bill in his committee for possible passage later or for inclusion in a transportation omnibus policy bill.
Hornstein’s House File 2092 is identical to Dibble’s bill.
“I think there’s a lot of momentum building for it,” Hornstein said Tuesday. “We’ve had too many issues, Southwest is one of them, but there are issues that have accumulated over a number of years that support that the agency needs more transparency and accountability. We feel this is a really appropriate time to raise this issue.”