A special task force looking at ways to restructure the Metropolitan Council may be struggling to reach a consensus, but it isn’t short on ideas.
The Metropolitan Governance Task Force, created in the 2023 transportation budget, is approaching its final meetings before a Feb. 1 deadline. Members have started presenting plans for how to do regional governance differently, and any proposal that wins a majority of the task force would then go to the 2024 Legislature, which would have to approve, amend or disregard any proposals. But reaching a majority might be the hard part.
The current Met Council consists of 17 members — all appointed by Gov. Tim Walz. Sixteen represent districts around the seven counties of the Twin Cities, each with the same number of people. The 17th is the chair who also acts as the director of the agency and is a member of the Walz cabinet.
The agency operates Metro Transit as well as approving the region’s transit plan and building light rail and bus rapid transit lines. It also manages the region’s wastewater system, funds regional parks and creates regional land use policies. The Met Council also serves as the Metropolitan Planning Organization under federal law that crafts 20-year transportation plans and four-year implementation programs.
While its duties are vast, most of the criticism of the agency comes from its management of light rail construction projects and the review of local comprehensive plans. The task force emerged from the legislative session after a proposal by the chairs of the House and Senate Transportation committees to shift to an elected — rather than appointed — council could not muster majority support. Still, those chairs — Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, both DFL-Minneapolis — continue to support an elected council, a form that is used in the Portland, Oregon, region.
Pushback has come from a seemingly unlikely group of task force members: DFLers who support the current council makeup, suburban Republicans who are leery of additional elections in the region and critics of the Met Council who favor other changes to the council’s makeup.
The main alternative to an elected council is to create a council of governments similar to what many regions in the U.S. and in Minnesota use to decide how to disperse federal transportation funds. The Met Council gets around the federal requirement to have locally elected officials play a role in this work by using the Transportation Advisory Board to help make those decisions.
Most proposals by task force members include staggered terms that would prevent a complete turnover of members at once, either by election or appointment. The agreement starts to break down after that.
Though she didn’t present a formal plan, task force member Kristin Beckmann, who was appointed by Walz, said any future Met Council makeup should include some role for the governor.
“There is one person who has been elected by the whole region, and that is the governor,” Beckmann said. “There is one person who is supposed to think about the region as the economic engine of the state and frankly balance the region’s needs with all the rest of the state’s needs.
“When I am looking at proposals as they come forward, I am looking for a meaningful way for the one person elected by the whole region to play some sort of role,” Beckmann said.
Other task force members said that if governors keep broad appointment authority, they should play a larger role in the work of the council. Mary Pattock, a citizen member, said governors seem to be hands off but could be influencing decisions behind the scenes, something that contributes to public confusion as to who is in charge. Sam Rockwell, the director of Move Minnesota, said if the current structure is kept, the body should be renamed “The Governor’s Metropolitan Council.”
“If we cannot come to a broader governance shift, there are maybe things we can do to actually put the responsibility more squarely at the governor’s feet so the council is more effectively advocating for the priorities of the region,” Rockwell said.
Hornstein, who chairs the task force, said the end result could be blending the proposals discussed.
“There could be, as we try to get to consensus, a way to blend ideas,” he said. Starting last August, the task force has held 13 meetings and conducted four public listening sessions in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Shakopee and Lake Elmo.
Full texts of the proposals were included on the task force’s June 17 agenda and are detailed here. Below is a summary of each.
The Dibble Proposal: Dibble would create two bodies that would have different structures and receive various duties now performed by the Met Council. The first would be what he terms the Regional Civic Council that would have 19 members — 16 elected by districts of equal population and three members appointed by the governor.
A chair would be selected by the members. The elections would be nonpartisan, with some public funding similar to the state’s public finance system for legislators and statewide elected offices.
This council would make most of the decisions made by the Met Council, including all taxing and bonding decisions and policymaking on regional issues. It would oversee the operations of Metro Transit and regional wastewater treatment.
The second group would be called the Local Government Council, comprised of city and county council members and commissioners, with each county getting at least one member and the city positions distributed among what Dibble terms central cities, fully developed suburbs, and emerging suburbs.
Dibble proposes a process that allows the Local Government Council to veto — with a two-thirds majority — major decisions of the Regional Civic Council. It then would allow the Regional Civic Council to override such vetoes with its own two-thirds majority.
Myron Orfield, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota who has studied — and been a critic of — the Met Council for decades, offered a similar plan but would first require a vote in the seven-county region to approve the new structure.
The Pratt Proposal: Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, supports replacing the governor-appointed Met Council with a body of local elected officials — one from each of the seven counties in the region and 33 city and township council members. The 33 would be selected by district by the city and township council members within each district. This council would select its own chair and hire an executive director to manage the agency’s staff.
When the council distributes federal transportation funds and completes other tasks assigned to regional councils by federal law, it would include the state commissioner of transportation as well as people representing freight transporters, non-motorized transportation interests and transit.
Pratt includes a supplemental suggestion that Metro Transit would be removed from the jurisdiction of the new Met Council and become an independent agency. A separate transit agency had been discussed by the task force earlier. It came in response to much of the testimony heard by the task force that it is transit — especially the construction of megaprojects like the Southwest Light Rail Transit project — that has brought out the flaws in the appointed council model.
But changing to a COG model brings a legal problem. Under federal law, a region that significantly changes its metropolitan planning organization structure — termed redesignation — must have the approval of the state and the largest city within the region. This is meant to prevent regions from creating new structures that reduce the role of the central city in regional planning. Any plan that diminishes the voting clout of Minneapolis, therefore, would risk losing the city’s support. While existing COGs are grandfathered, any move to change them triggers the big-city-veto.
Peter Wagenius, the legislative director of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, was the transportation policy aide to former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. He told the task force this week that any plan that disrupts one-person/one-vote could draw legal challenges and would be unlikely to win the city’s support.
The Greene Proposal: Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene favors an elected council that would serve full-time and have staff support, similar to county commissioners. The elections would be nonpartisan, and the members would pick their own chair.
The council would hire a regional administrator, as the current Met Council does, and that person would direct the agency. Greene would keep all current duties under the new elected council.
The Bigham Proposal: Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham presented a plan endorsed by a working group of the Association of Minnesota Counties. The plan that received the most support was a council of governments with both county and city elected officials. The group also supports separating regional transit planning from transit operations. That is, while the Met Council would decide how transit should serve the region, a different agency would operate the biggest transit service.
The Pattock Proposal: Pattock is a citizen member of the task force and has been a critic of the Met Council’s decision to route the SWLRT project through the Kenilworth Corridor. She was part of an organization that sued to block that route and has been critical of the council and council staff for not being accountable to residents and local governments. Her proposal, however, does not opt for an elected council as others on the task force do. Instead, it proposes a council of governments to make regional planning decisions and a separate transit agency run by a mostly-elected board.
The Status Quo Proposal: Though she hasn’t submitted a formal proposal, Rep. Ginny Klevorn, DFL-Plymouth, has asked that the task force consider making no changes to the governance.
“The status quo is always an option,” she said during a Jan. 10 task force meeting. “I’m not saying it is the best option, I’m not saying it is the option we should take. But we should evaluate everything, and to say we should take it off the table would be disingenuous to the process.”
Clarification: This story was updated to clarify views expressed by task force member Mary Pattock about the governor’s role in directing the Met Council.
Callaghan covers the state government for MinnPost.
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