New Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Alene Tchourumoff will need to grapple with political divisions over regional services like transit and try to unite people across the region, Gov. Mark Dayton said at her swearing-in ceremony Monday in St. Paul.
Dayton appointed Tchourumoff last month to replace Adam Duininck, who left to take a position at a regional carpenters' union. She takes over the leadership post at a time when transit funding is uncertain and the Republican-led Legislature has tried to restructure the 50-year-old regional planning agency.
"Her task, as difficult as it is, will be to unify. To try to bring people together. To find common cause. To remind people why it is we have a metropolitan government," Dayton said after the ceremony.
The Met Council oversees operation of the region's buses and trains, regulates wastewater treatment and guides land use across the seven-county metro area, among other planning duties. Tchourumoff, the former state rail director, is the agency's 15th chairperson and only the second to lead the Met Council full time.
"The work that you do in land planning, wastewater infrastructure, world class parks, affordable housing and a reliable transit system are the things that make the difference between a region that's just a haphazard collection of cities and an integrated region that actually is well functioning," Tchourumoff said, addressing the Met Council and staff members.
Tchourumoff (pronounced CHUR-um-off) said the council is critical to making the region economically competitive, and that the Twin Cities are competing both nationally and internationally for "resources and talent."
"We want to attract the best and the brightest, to be a place that people want to live, work and raise their families," Tchourumoff said.
Duininck's tenure was marked by his advocacy of the Southwest light rail, a project that will continue as Tchourumoff leads the agency.
"After years of work, Southwest is moving closer to being realized," Tchourumoff said. "I'm committed to getting you across the finish line so that we can connect people with jobs and opportunities."
The Met Council has been a frequent target of criticism recently, particularly from Republicans who say it has too much power with too little accountability. Its 17 council members are appointed by the governor.
"You have become the target of some very unfair criticism over the last months," Dayton told those gathered on Monday. "I know the feeling, believe me."
Efforts to restructure the agency's governance failed at the Legislature this year.
But Rep. Paul Torkelson, who leads the House transportation finance committee, said he expects the issue will re-emerge. He raised the topic during a congratulatory call to Tchourumoff, who he says is very well qualified for the position.
"It's something that I think is going to get a lot of attention," said Torkelson, R-Hanska. "I told her that I'm very interested in looking into the topic and hoping that we could find some common ground where we can make the council representation a little more transparent [and] more accountable."
Tchourumoff became the state's first rail director in early 2016, a role created to better coordinate rail issues across state agencies with a particular focus on the safety of oil shipments. She has an extensive background in transportation planning, and oversaw planning for Hennepin County's Public Works Department before joining the state.