Republicans at the Capitol aired their frustration with the Metropolitan Council on Monday in a pitch to overhaul the composition of the regional planning agency, whose members are appointed by the governor.
Arguing that the Met Council is not accountable enough to the citizens it represents, Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, unveiled a proposal to make all its primary members elected officials chosen by their peers. Supporters said the legislation has backing from four of the seven metro area county boards.
“This legislation is a response to an ongoing and ever-increasing concern about the lack of trust and credibility between the Met Council, local elected officials and public stakeholders,” Albright said at a news conference.
But critics of the idea said that local officials would face conflicts of interest as the council deliberates regulations and grants that affect their own communities.
The Met Council, which turns 50 this year, operates the region’s wastewater and transit systems as well as overseeing local land use planning. It doles out grants for development, environmental cleanup and regional parks, and keeps an eye on the region’s drinking water supply. Its work constructing transit lines and ensuring that cities’ plans don’t conflict with the broader plans for the region has been particularly controversial.
Previous proposals to change the governance of the Met Council have been vetoed by two Republican governors, Arne Carlson and Tim Pawlenty, as well as by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012. Dayton said Monday that local government criticism of the council, which dates to its founding in the 1960s, is derived from the “natural tension” between broad regional governance and communities pursuing their own interests.
“I oppose efforts to strip the Met Council of its proper role to provide accountable, regional leadership for Minnesotans,” Dayton said in a statement. “However, I will consider any serious proposal intended to improve its effectiveness.”
Conflicts of interest?
Albright’s measure would increase the size of the Met Council from 17 to 27 members. Of those, four would be appointed by the state Department of Transportation and would vote only on certain issues.
The others would be local officials appointed to staggered terms by local officials. Committees of city officials would chose 16 district representatives, and each county board also would choose a representative.
But that structure prompted criticism that it would give extra power to counties with fewer people. There are about 100,000 people in Carver County, 414,490 in Dakota County and 1.2 million in Hennepin County.
“I can see why Dakota County would like it, because you have the same voting power as a county that has three times your size,” Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, said during a committee hearing Monday.
Opponents noted that local officials would be serving on a body that in some cases controls the cities and counties they were elected to serve.
“Now you’ve put somebody in a position where they’re both the regulator and the regulated,” said Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who chairs a regional board that helps direct federal transportation dollars.
His comments were echoed by Metro Cities, a group representing cities in the metro area.
That drew a reaction from Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca.
“It seems to me that’s a little backward,” Petersburg said. “We have elected officials that are being regulated by officials that are not being elected.”
Other reform proposals
The proposal discussed Monday isn’t the only attempt at Met Council reform. The Citizens League, which helped spur the creation of the council decades ago, issued a report in April 2016 that suggested soliciting more public input on Met Council nominations and having members serve staggered four-year terms rather than changing with each governor.
But Dakota County Commissioner Chris Gerlach said Monday that would not be enough.
“That recommendation from the Citizens League left all of the appointment authority still in the hands of the governor,” he said.
Another bill at the Legislature, authored by Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, would make the Met Council directly elected — as occurs in Portland, Ore. Gerlach said he does not favor that approach because it would effectively increase the agency’s authority.
“It does certainly solve the representation issue,” Gerlach said. “But the downside of course is you create a whole other layer of [elected] government.”
Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said he was glad it appeared the discussion had moved beyond whether the council should exist and provide basic services.
“Hopefully it’s more just a debate and a discussion about how to best do that from a regional perspective,” Duininck said.