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More critics than fans on task force looking at Met Council restructure

The task force has until February to recommend whether the Legislature should make the Met Council an elected body or adopt other changes in governance.

Metropolitan Governance Task Force Chair Frank Hornstein and Vice Chair Eric Pratt
Metropolitan Governance Task Force Chair Frank Hornstein and Vice Chair Eric Pratt shown during Wednesday’s committee meeting.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The Met Council appears to have some fans on a special legislative task force charged with recommending changes to how it is structured. It just doesn’t appear to have very many of them.

The Metropolitan Governance Task Force was created in the 2023 transportation omnibus bill and has until the beginning of the 2024 legislative session to suggest what the council should look like in the future, including whether council members should be elected by voters. Any changes would then have to be adopted by the Legislature.

But the various appointing authorities — the four legislative caucuses, transit advocates, labor, the governor and the region’s cities, counties and townships — have forwarded a lot of Met Council critics to be among the 17 members, starting with the DFL chairs of the House and Senate Transportation Committees.

Both Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble have introduced bills to have the currently appointed council members be elected. Both have been critical of the routing and construction decisions for the Southwest Light Rail Transit project, and both have criticized council leadership.

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Before describing the results of a questionnaire conducted at the Minnesota State Fair that asked about an elected Met Council, Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said despite his known criticism of the regional body, he is trying not to “opine” about it and keep an open mind. But that didn’t stop him from reading the results of the unscientific survey of fairgoers showing strong support for an elected council,  calling it “just a point of information.”

Anyone expecting a final report calling for status quo should take a look at the members and how some of them introduced themselves at the first meeting last month: 

  • Myron Orfield is a law professor at the University of Minnesota and a former lawmaker who sponsored bills to reform the Met Council and make it an elected body. He is among the leading critics of the current structure and Wednesday raised the possibility that the council is unconstitutional. 
  • Minneapolis Council Member Lisa Goodman, who is not seeking reelection this year, described her two-decades-plus battles with the council over SWLRT as well as how it processed sewer permits for restaurants and other businesses.
  • Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, is serving as vice chair of the task force and has sponsored bills in the Senate to add local elected officials to the Met Council. 
  • Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene has recently battled with the Met Council over how to pay for cost overruns on the project that will extend the current Green Line to Eden Prairie. She endorsed Dibble’s elected-council bill this session. 
  • Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Waconia, is a former chair of the Legislature’s Commission on Metropolitan Government who said this last year about the handling of SWLRT: “If the members of the public saw how this project is being handled and the members of the Met Council were elected positions, none of them would be reelected, and there was bipartisan agreement about that.”

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Some task force members haven’t been openly critical or have expressed both praise and criticism about the council, especially about functions that receive less attention such as wastewater, drinking water, parks and regional planning.

“Transit seems to be the flashpoint and obviously where many of us are invested. I don’t want to lose track (of the fact) that the governance of this system has to work for wastewater and housing and our parks,” said Kristin Beckmann, the former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Tim Walz. She said the governor is “very open to change,” but she said she wants the group to be aware of the non-transit responsibilities of the council.

State Rep. Ginny Klevorn
State Rep. Ginny Klevorn
So far, the two apparent defenders of the current structure are Edina Mayor James Hovland and Rep. Ginny Klevorn, DFL-Plymouth. Hovland testified against a Dibble bill to turn the council into an elected body. And Klevorn, the chair of the House State and Local Government Committee, has urged the task force to be cautious in how it proceeds. 

“Change in and of itself can be good. But it can also be negative,” Klevorn said. “We all come to the table with thoughts about what would be good. I just ask that we all keep our minds really open to the testimony we’re gonna hear at this task force and that we all think about the reason for the change.” She urged the task force to make “fact-based decisions and not emotional decisions as we go forward.”

At its second meeting Wednesday, the task force members heard why making changes will be difficult. The question of what the council is, what powers it has and how it is constituted go back 50 years. Early attempts to make it directly elected were either narrowly defeated or vetoed. Staff researcher Taylor Koehler said she asked the legislative research library for all the bills filed to change the makeup of the council and the result was measured in the thousands.

In relating the debate from 1967, Taylor could have been describing the current arguments. Pro-election advocates said an appointed council lacked accountability and that taxes should be adopted by an elected body. Opponents said elected council members might not think regionally but only to protect their own chunk of the Twin Cities.

Legislative Auditor Judy Randall described a report she led in 2011 that concluded the appointed council hampered the council’s role as a regional transit planner.

Legislative Auditor Judy Randall shown with state Sen. Scott Dibble.
MinnPost file photo by Peter Callaghan
Legislative Auditor Judy Randall shown with state Sen. Scott Dibble in a 2022 photo.
“If we were starting from scratch, this is not how we would have constructed this system,” Randall said. But she also showed how difficult the issue was then and remains: While an elected council was looked at, the Office of the Legislative Auditor suggested a model of both governor-appointed members and locally elected officials. Why? “Frankly, in 2011, this was viewed as politically infeasible,” she said of direct election.

A 2019 report by the Citizens League, which had historically been a primary supporter of an elected Met Council, didn’t suggest that change, instead suggesting the council members serve staggered terms so a new governor couldn’t immediately replace the entire body.

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The two governance structures that will get deeper looks at subsequent task force meetings are direct election and some form of what is termed a council of governments, or COG to meet and discuss issues and also to distribute federal transportation dollars. The only example of an elected body with some similarities to the Met Council is the Metro Council in Portland, Oregon. That council has both planning and operating functions. All other metro areas use councils of government for planning, but planning only.

Pratt’s bill in 2018 used that format, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton.

Dibble and Hornstein support elected council members. During a hearing on his bill during the session, Dibble called the Met Council structure one-of-a-kind in the U.S.

The council, he complained, 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 has broad authority over land use, housing, wastewater and transit with some taxing authority.

“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.

But others on the task force fear creating yet another outlet for big campaign donors to influence elections.

State Rep. Jon Koznick
“To be successful, campaigns would have to raise upwards of $300,000,” said Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville. “There are big influences that will be in play. There’s a lot of big money dictating who is winning these elections.”

Hornstein has said his task force is different from the others who shared their results Wednesday because it is an extension of the Legislature.

“The Legislature created the Met Council and if there’s a problem with the Met Council, its operations and its functions, then it’s up to the Legislature to fix it,” Hornstein said. “That’s the charge that we have here.”

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