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Make Met Council an elected body? Task force to begin work on changes aimed at accountability

Thank — or blame — the troubled Southwest Light Rail Transit project for the bipartisan view that big changes are needed at the Met Council.

Metro Transit, Heywood office
A relatively short section of the traditionally long omnibus transportation policy and finance bill sets the Met Council up for significant changes.
MinnPost file photo by Peter Callaghan

The Met Council has done something at the Minnesota Legislature that isn’t easy to accomplish: build bipartisanship. Lawmakers from both parties and all parts of the state support changing how the regional government with control or influence over transit, wastewater treatment, land-use planning and regional parks works.

Thank — or blame — the troubled Southwest Light Rail Transit project for that. Republicans have long expressed concerns over the way the 17-member appointed council runs rail projects as well as its say over suburban growth. The over-budget and under-managed extension of the Green Line to Eden Prairie has helped bring DFLers into the reform camp.

Case in point: a relatively short section of the traditionally long omnibus transportation policy and finance bill that sets the Met Council up for significant changes. A 17-member task force, led by legislators but including other members, will be appointed by mid-July. It will then have six and a half months to investigate how the Met Council is governed and recommend changes to the 2024 session of the Legislature.

Those changes may well  include replacing a council appointed by the governor to one made up of elected members from throughout the seven-county region. While other options will be studied, such as a regional council of local government officials, the legislators who came up with the task force have strong opinions.

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Both House Transportation Committee Chair Frank Hornstein and Senate Transportation Committee Chair Scott Dibble favor replacing the current appointed council with an elected one. Only because there are different versions of such a body and because they lacked a majority for any one, the pair of Minneapolis DFLers opted for the task force.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein
State Rep. Frank Hornstein
But Hornstein quickly emphasizes that this isn’t like a typical task force, the familiar study group that often is used to avoid action on thorny problems or kick resolution of the issue off to the future.

“What makes this different from previous efforts is it will be legislatively directed, legislatively mandated,” Hornstein said last week. Eight of the 17 members are legislators — the four political leaders of the House and Senate will each have two appointees. And the chair must come from those appointees.

While elected council members are Hornstein’s preference, he said “anything that will be a step toward holding this agency more accountable and result in a major restructuring and reform would be an outcome I would like.” 

While the Met Council has been criticized frequently over the last decade, the recent exposure of management problems surrounding the 14.5-mile extension of the Green Line from Target Field to Eden Prairie has focused it. Even supporters of light rail and a regional transit district weighed in after a highly critical audit by the Office of the Legislative Auditor was released in March. When it was approved by the federal government in 2018, SWLRT was supposed to cost $2 billion and carry its first passengers in 2023. Both were upward revisions of earlier estimates. It is now set to open in 2027 and cost $2.767 billion, with the council not sure where all of the money is going to come from. 

State Sen. Scott Dibble
State Sen. Scott Dibble
Also to be included on what is called the Metropolitan Governance Task Force are a designee of the governor, someone from the Association of Metropolitan Municipalities, the Association of Minnesota Counties, the Minnesota Association of Townships and the Minnesota AFL-CIO. The law also requires appointees from Move Minnesota, the Office of Higher Education and two from the public selected by the Legislative Coordinating Commission.

All appointments must be made by July 15.

Hornstein said he hopes and expects all members will have some knowledge of the Met Council and the issues it responds to, not just transit but affordable housing, parks, wastewater and urban growth. There is no time for Met Council 101. Hornstein said he will ask to be appointed, as will Dibble.

“We’ve made this among our highest priorities so we’d like to see this process through and make sure that it is successful,” he said. 

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The task force must give its report to the House and Senate by Feb. 1, 2024, just before the start of the legislative session. Lawmakers could then accept, reject or modify the recommendation. If the task force opts to draft a home rule charter for the regional government, it would need to be approved by the voters in Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington, Dakota, Anoka, Scott and Carver counties.

Still, it is possible that Met Council elections could be on the regional ballot as early as the 2024 election. 

Dibble had favored moving directly to a charter commission to draft a home rule charter for the Met Council that would go before voters in the seven counties for approval. That would follow a path similar to the requirement for cities and counties to become home rule governments. Home rule gives local governments more control over their creation and operation and some independence from state laws that govern non-home rule governments.

Charlie Zelle
Metropolitan Council
Charlie Zelle
That, too, lacked the votes. But adoption of a home rule charter for the Met Council is one of the options presented to the task force.

Gov. Tim Walz has expressed his support for changing the governance of the Met Council, even if it means that he and future governors would lose the power to appoint all members, especially the chair. The current chair of the council, Charlie Zelle, did not take a position on the task force idea.

Walz has enlisted elected officials in each of the 16 council districts to review applicants for the council seats and make recommendations. Many suburban elected officials testified against changing the make-up of the council. Others, including Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority chair Marion Greene, who has been wrestling with the Met Council over costs of SWLRT, endorsed Dibble’s charter commission.