Met Council reform efforts gain traction, thanks to Metro Transit issues
With a contested transit system and the release of a scathing report detailing the mismanagement of Southwest Line construction, some state Capitol lawmakers say now is the time to reform the Metropolitan Council.
The idea has already been studied, with countless recommendations – and ultimately unsuccessful. But this time, some form of reform may remain: There is bipartisan support in the Legislative Assembly, and Gov. Tim Walz is said to be willing to discuss the matter.
“I have not seen such passion for restructuring and reforming the Met Council in over 20 years,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, author of a bill calling for a task force legislative to recommend reforms to the Met Council.
The 16 members and chairman of the Met Council have been appointed by the governor since the powerful regional planning body was created 56 years ago by the legislature. Critics of the council say reforming its structure could make it more transparent and accountable to the public.
Many have suggested that some or all of the members of the council be elected, or that it be made up of elected officials such as mayors and county commissioners. Others say simply staggering member terms might work just as well.
With an annual budget of $1.2 billion and the power to levy taxes and issue bonds – as well as overseeing the metropolitan area’s wastewater treatment, affordable housing, regulations on the use of floors and an extensive system of suburban parks – the council and its work touches nearly all of the Twin Cities. 3.7 million inhabitants.
It also builds and operates the region’s public transit system, through Metro Transit – one reason it has proven controversial of late.
“The Met Council has really gone off the rails,” said Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor who wrote two books on local government and helped create the council’s current structure in 1994. He lobbied for members elected in the 1990s, but the measure was vetoed by Governor Arne Carlson.
“When tyrannies go bad, they don’t get better,” Orfield said. “In democracies you can kick the bums out.”
A bill has been introduced in the Senate which calls for members of the Met Council to be elected. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the author of the bill, said the council as constituted is “fully beholden” to the governor and that members “are compelled to articulate any initiative outside of what the Director General has authorized”.
A spokesman for Walz said the governor was “open to governance reform and any effort to make the Met Council more accountable.” And Walz himself said on Thursday that while there is no guarantee an elected Met Board would work any differently, he has been in favor of his election for several years.
“I put it in 2019 in budget negotiations with Republicans,” he said. “I offered this as something and they weren’t interested at the time.”
A few Republicans joined the effort this session. Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, co-authored the House bill that called for council members to be elected before it was amended. She said bipartisan support isn’t out of the question, especially given the high-profile issues associated with the $2.7 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project.
Many on both sides of the aisle cite the current state of the Metro Transit system — which is plagued by problems with crime and poor service — as an impetus for change.
“I feel like something drastic has to happen,” Robbins said.
Federal Funding Concerns
In the past, Hennepin County commissioners have opposed moves to elect Met Council members. But Commissioner Marion Greene testified last week before the Senate Transportation Committee that it was “an idea whose time has come.”
“An elected Met Council would be more accountable to the district, the voters and the area it serves,” she said.
The Met Council was formed in 1967, as the metropolitan area’s population grew after World War II. With rapid growth, problems crossed municipal and county lines: septic systems polluting well water, booming suburbs with failing sewage systems, and a private bus system about to close.
Today, the council is one of the most powerful organizations of its kind in the United States, with responsibilities far exceeding regional bodies in most other metropolitan areas. Only Portland, Oregon has a similar body – but its members are elected. Voter turnout for Portland’s Metro Council is generally high, former member Robert Liberty testified recently, because the issues are of keen interest to residents.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor suggested in 2011 that the council be made up of appointed and elected members for staggered terms. A group organized by the Citizens League in 2016 and a blue ribbon panel convened by Walz in 2020, both recommended that appointees serve staggered terms.
Hornstein does not buy it. “Staggered terms are not acceptable,” he said, adding that the proposed task force had a legislative mandate to craft strong reforms — and soon.
However, the mayors of Minnetonka and Savage recently testified on Capitol Hill that they oppose electing council members. Edina Mayor Jim Hovland wrote to the Senate committee that such a move would “threaten the effectiveness of our regional government and its mission to provide comprehensive regional planning, infrastructure and services in a coordinated and efficient manner.”
Hovland chairs the Met Council’s Transportation Advisory Board, a shadowy 34-member committee that funnels millions of dollars in federal funding every two years toward road and transit projects across the region. The federal government has designated the Met Council as a “metropolitan planning organization” qualified to accept and review federal funds. If the Met Council were to become an elected body, Hovland wrote, federal funding and the projects attached to it could be jeopardized.
Council Chairman we met with, Charlie Zelle, expressed similar concerns in his letter to the Senate committee. “One area of uncertainty is whether transportation grants would be affected ‘if the council reorganized as an elected body,'” he wrote.
However, hearings on Capitol Hill in recent weeks have drawn several citizens calling for a change in the way Met Council members are chosen.
Mary Pattock, a longtime Southwest critic who represents several Minneapolis neighborhood groups, said last week’s legislative auditor’s report on the troubled streetcar line confirmed the council was “arrogant and out of control.”
“Now it’s the responsibility of lawmakers to fix the mess – to reform the council and make it accountable to the public,” she said. “If they don’t they will be just as negligent as the Met Council.”
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