When Rep. Frank Hornstein proposed creating a task force to look at how to change the structure and makeup of the Met Council, he was aware of the skepticism that often greets task forces, work groups and blue-ribbon commissions.
The Met Council itself had already undergone the scrutiny of each of those variations and none resulted in substantive changes in how the regional transit, planning and wastewater treatment agency operates. Why would this task force do anything different?
“In my faith we start the Passover Seder with a question: ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’” the Minneapolis DFLer told his House Transportation Committee last session. “You might be asking, ‘Why is this task force different from all other task forces we’ve had?’”
This one would be created by the Legislature with many legislators as members, Hornstein insisted. It would have a hard deadline and would look into a specific set of reforms, including his preference to have voters — not the governor — pick the Met Council members.
“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,” Hornstein told his committee.
At its penultimate meeting Wednesday, the Metropolitan Governance Task Force might have proved the skeptics right. After six months of meetings, the 17-member task force voted not to send one recommendation to the Legislature. It will send six. Any idea that was proposed by Wednesday’s meeting by any task force member was to be included.
An elected Met Council? That’s there. A council of governments made up of city council members and county commissioners selected by local governments? That’s there too. A bicameral body with an elected council AND a council of local governments? Yep. So is a hybrid council of governments with local elected officials appointed by the governor.
The current governor-appointed Met Council was formed 30 years ago after a bill to elect the members was vetoed. The council, along with a separately appointed chair, has many duties assigned by both Congress and the state Legislature. It oversees the staff that operates transit and regional wastewater treatment, it drafts and approves growth management plans, it distributes money to regional parks, it serves as the federally required metropolitan planning organization for federal transportation funding.
There have been complaints about the makeup — a part-time council with brief tenures and a permanent staff — since its creation. But how the Met Council has managed the extension of the Green Line light rail line from Target Field to Eden Prairie has amplified concerns about whether the structure provides oversight of staff. The main question for the task force has been who is accountable for the problems and whether the Legislature, local governments or residents have any real influence.
While that led to a handful of reform ideas, none had majority support from the task force, which includes among its members legislators plus appointees representing local governments, the governor, transit advocates and higher education. Rather than send nothing, they sent everything and asked the Legislature to sort it out.
“Supporting this motion creates an opportunity for the Legislature to evaluate all proposals equally and build on the good work of the Metropolitan Governance Task Force,” read the motion offered by Kristin Beckmann, an appointee of Gov. Tim Walz.
That might suggest that an elected Met Council still has legs since that’s the preference of Hornstein and the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Scott Dibble. But one reason the DFL pair convened the task force was because neither could find the votes in their respective houses of the Legislature for the elected council.
Some on the task force considered the result a waste of opportunity to change the status quo. Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham tried to have just two proposals sent forward — two versions of a council of local officials — so as to give the Legislature more clarity. That motion was defeated.
“We’re just going to put everything in a stew and let it simmer,” Bigham said. “Just punting this to the Legislature, from a governance perspective, is not giving clarity to them.” She later said: “That just means the status quo is going to go forward, and it will perpetuate the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability.”
Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor and member of the task force, was the sponsor of the bill that created this version of the Met Council when he was in the state Senate. Orfield, who supports an elected council, said it would be a “scandal” if the task force made no recommendation of a single reform.
Hornstein, however, took issue with that conclusion. He said the group heard testimony from experts, held four public hearings around the region, refined the basic plans for either an elected council or a council of local governments and even produced hybrid ideas not thought about before. All that moved the process along and will help the Legislature discuss the issue.
“I can’t think of any other time in my legislative career that we have had such a focus on metropolitan governance,” Hornstein said. The Beckmann motion captures all of that work.
“Yes, it’s incomplete. Yes, there’s a compressed timeline. But to simply say we haven’t done our due diligence, I think the opposite is true,” he said. “This commission has done a lot of groundbreaking work.”
Another task force member, Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, said he wanted it to be clear that even though the elected council plan was favored by the transportation committee chairs, it lacks support.
“It’s my perception that this task force originated due to bicameral, bipartisan opposition to an elected Met Council,” he said. But despite the makeup that was heavy on Minneapolis representatives, there was not enough support to make an elected council the official recommendation.
“I think it’s important to note for the public that’s watching that an elected Met Council does not have the support in this task force. That we’re not taking a vote on that says a lot.”
Callaghan covers the state government for MinnPost.
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