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Walz open to giving up Met Council appointing authority, but can lawmakers agree on a solution?

The Metropolitan Council has been mired in controversy and criticism, much of it resulting from the lengthy, pricey and troubled Southwest Light Rail Transit project.

Metropolitan Council building
The Metropolitan Council has been mired in controversy and criticism, much of it resulting from the lengthy, pricey and troubled Southwest Light Rail Transit project, a 14.5-mile extension of the current Green Line to Eden Prairie.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Gov. Tim Walz  currently has sole authority to appoint all 17 members of the Metropolitan Council and designate a chair who serves in his cabinet. While appointments are subject to state Senate confirmation, such votes rarely happen.

That makes Walz — and all Minnesota governors — the most powerful player in regional decisions over transit, wastewater treatment, regional parks and comprehensive land use. So why would he want to give up that power?

The Metropolitan Council has been mired in controversy and criticism, much of it resulting from the lengthy, pricey and troubled Southwest Light Rail Transit project, a 14.5-mile extension of the current Green Line to Eden Prairie. While SWLRT wasn’t made an issue in his last reelection campaign, it has become more political liability than benefit.

The DFL governor this week repeated that he’s all for proposals in the state House and Senate to take away his appointment powers and give them to voters in the seven-county Met Council region. He also said reforms of the council should look beyond how the council is selected and include how it functions, ensuring better efficiency and accountability.

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“The question I have is, I don’t know if [making the seats elected] guarantees a solution, the results we need,” Walz said.

At the time it was created, the council was considered groundbreaking, Walz said. The council oversees vital regional services and was meant to overcome provincial interests of various cities and counties. But while sponsors had wanted an elected council, a bill with that provision was vetoed by then-Gov. Arne Carslon. The appointed model met his requirements and was adopted.

“But we’ve seen that it appears to be a bit cumbersome,” Walz said of the Met Council structure. “How do we get around that? The Met Council does a lot of incredibly good things, but as we have seen, there have been things that have been clunky and have not been how the public expects them to be. 

“I think they need to think about the internal structures too, in addition to whether people are elected or appointed,” he said. “You don’t have to look much further than Congress to see, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get more efficiency just by electing someone.”

In recent sessions of the Legislature when Republicans held more power, the Met Council was a prime target, criticisms that were partly aimed at the agency itself and partly at opposition to fixed-route light rail. But with a DFL trifecta running St. Paul, lawmakers who support mass transit haven’t given the council any breathing room.

The two most-powerful transportation players in the Minnesota Legislature agree that the current appointed Met Council should be disrupted and be replaced, likely with an elected council. What they don’t yet agree on is how to get there.

The two massive omnibus bills produced by the House and Senate transportation committees include two different methods to examine and change the governance of the regional transit, wastewater, parks and land use council. The House version would create a task force to suggest changes, while the Senate version would create a charter commission to propose a new constitution for the seven-county regional government.

While that sounds like the same thing, the task force proposed by Rep. Frank Hornstein would report to the Legislature. The charter commission proposed by Sen. Scott Dibble would report to the voters in the seven-county Met Council region.

Only one version can pass the Legislature. Without agreement, nothing passes.

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Said Dibble of the differences in approach: “The final word has not been spoken yet.”

The two Minneapolis DFLers are allies in transportation policy and have produced transportation bills that are very similar. Both include hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue for roads, bridges, transit and “active” transportation such as walking and cycling. Both want changes at the Met Council.

“It’s a way of creating a more meaningful, robust regional conversation,” Dibble said of his charter commission. Dibble is aware of the task force

State Sen. Scott Dibble
State Sen. Scott Dibble
concept but is opting for something more direct.

“They’re both really good ideas,” Dibble said. But the charter pathway would require a vote of those who live in the Met Council region, which includes all or most of Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington, Dakota, Anoka, Scott and Carver counties. Public votes are required when cities or counties attempt to become home rule governments or amend their charters. Dibble envisions the Met Council following a similar process.

“It could be elected. It could be not,” Dibble said of whatever the charter commission ends up sending to voters. “But I think it will be. Once people really dig in and analyze the nature of the Metropolitan Council, that it’s a local government with taxing and lawmaking authorities … the only logical conclusion is that it has to be elected.”

Dibble told his committee in March 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 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 has broad authority over land use, housing, wastewater and transit with some taxing authority, as well.

Hornstein has long preferred an elected council over one that is appointed every four years by governors. But he said he doesn’t think there are enough votes in the Legislature to get there right now. But he said problems with the Met Council, especially its management of the Southwest Light Rail Transit project, has brought agreement that something needs to change.

Hornstein was prepared for criticism that his task force is just putting the issue off, that it would produce just another study.

“In my faith we start the Passover Seder with a question: ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’” he told his committee last month. “You might be asking, ‘Why is this task force different from all other task forces we’ve had?’”

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Hornstein said it would be legislatively created and legislatively run with deadlines for reporting recommendations. His bill, which creates a new 0.75% sales tax in the Met Council region for transit, says the council can’t spend any of the proceeds on SWLRT until after the task force completes its work.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein
State Rep. Frank Hornstein
“I believe this is the year because of a combination of factors that we must act to have a major restructuring and reform of this agency,” he said.

With knowledge of the Dibble plan, Hornstein amended his task force language to say that the group could decide to go the charter route. But if so, it would have to report back to the Legislature and a future Legislature would have to trigger the process similar to what is contained in the Dibble proposal.

“They can consider anything but what I wanted to highlight is, what are the real options,” Hornstein said. “Direct election is what I prefer but we don’t have consensus in the Legislature on that.” Some lawmakers prefer a council of governments format that would be made up of already elected city and county officials. Others worry about the expense of yet another elected body, and Republicans suspect an elected body would still be dominated by DFL members.

Dibble’s plan would follow a process used by local governments to create and amend home rule charters. Eleven commission members would be appointed by the chief judge of Ramsey County. They would come from the seven-county region and have expertise in regional governance.

The unpaid commissioners would review current structures and propose a charter that could include the creation of an elected council and when the charter would be submitted to voters. If approved, elections would follow. The commission’s work is to be completed by Feb. 15, 2024.

The Hornstein task force would have members appointed by the House and Senate, the governor, Metro Cities, the state’s counties and townships association, labor, Move Minnesota and the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

According to the bill, the task force study “must include an analysis of the costs and benefits of direct election of members to the Metropolitan Council; a combination of directly elected and appointed members to the Metropolitan Council; a council of governments which would replace the current Metropolitan Council; reapportioning responsibilities of the Metropolitan Council to state agencies and local units of government; adoption of a home rule charter for governance of the Metropolitan Council; and any other regional governance approaches that are viable alternatives to the current structure of the Metropolitan Council.”

It would have until Feb. 1, 2024, to finish its report.

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