Attacked over its plans for the most expensive transit project in the Twin Cities, the agency overseeing the Southwest light-rail line has turned to a DFL political operative for help in easing concerns among vocal DFL constituents in Minneapolis.

The Metropolitan Council is paying Grassroots Solutions for advice on “engaging community members in discussion and soliciting feedback” on Southwest at four public meetings next month. Grassroots is run by Dan Cramer, a former aide to Sen. Paul Wellstone, and the firm works for prominent labor unions and DFL politicians.

The Met Council caught heat this year from Minneapolis homeowners over plans to keep freight trains in the Kenilworth recreational corridor and run the light-rail line in tunnels nearby. Some of the most vocal critics are DFL activists in Kenilworth who urged Gov. Mark Dayton to intervene.

“Dan is actively working with us to design meetings that will ensure the best possible experience for everyone involved,” Met Council spokeswoman Meredith Salsbery said.

The decision to pay Grassroots up to $22,000 for “facilitating” future public meetings grew out of closed-door strategy sessions this fall involving Dayton, a DFLer, Met Council officials and leading DFL legislators in response to opposition to the project.

Those meetings followed meetings last summer at which the council came under fire from people who said it didn’t pay enough attention to the public.

Dayton delayed action and said there was a need for greater public involvement in planning the Southwest line, expected to run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and cost $1.5 billion. He supported getting an outsider involved in running future public meetings on the project but didn’t recommend anyone specifically, Dayton press secretary Matt Swenson said.

Details developing

The Met Council contract calls for Grassroots to “develop the vision, agenda and format of feedback meetings” on studies of Southwest’s environmental impact and the possibility of rerouting freight train traffic to make room for the light-rail line. The contract says Grassroots will advise Met Council staff members “on aligning of logistics with facilitation format to ensure a consistent experience.”

There were few specifics this week on what that means. “We’re still trying to figure that out,” Cramer said Thursday. He is reviewing comments from previous public meetings “so we’re not simply repeating the conversation, but we’re extending the conversation and hopefully going deeper in the conversation.”

He said his firm performed a similar task in Detroit.

But Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, the lead GOP legislator on the House Transportation Finance Committee, blasted the arrangement with the Met Council.

“They might get a better-run meeting and more people can have their chance to vent, but I think they’re going to hear the same message,” Beard said. “In the meantime, a DFL firm gets $22,000.”

The Met Council also caught heat earlier this year from St. Louis Park residents over proposals to reroute the freight train traffic into their community from the Kenilworth corridor.

Meetings in January

Meetings will be held Jan. 7 and Jan. 9 in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, respectively, to discuss the scope of the studies. Two meetings later in January will reveal drafts of their reports.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said he urged the Met Council to find someone outside the agency to help run the meetings to counter a perception that it wasn’t listening to the public. “They have someone who has credibility,” he said.

Grassroots’ clients include prominent Democrats and liberal fundraising groups, including Sen. Al Franken, EMILY’s List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Its website also says it worked for Dayton when he was campaigning for U.S. Senate before becoming governor in 2010.

The move to hire the firm was questioned by a Kenilworth resident who has been active in opposing the light-rail plan.

“They’re going to hear the same message,” said Courtney Cushing Kiernat, who lives adjacent to the proposed line. “People aren’t going to change … what they think. So I’m not really sure what’s going to come out of it. Is it just placating the community?”