Before Adam Duininck takes his leave on July 31 as Metropolitan Council chair, I invited him to join me in a round of my favorite Minnesota government second-guessing game: What If?
What if the oft-criticized metro services-and-planning body he has headed for the past 30 months had been an elected body from its start in 1967 — as some legislators then wanted — rather than 16 members plus a chair appointed by the governor?
Or what if DFL Gov. Wendell Anderson had stuck with his 1970 campaign position that “the council has got to be elected” — a view shared by his Republican opponent, Attorney General Doug Head — rather than deciding in office not to surrender the 1967 Legislature’s generous gift of gubernatorial appointment power?
Wouldn’t elected membership have spared the Met Council from its critics’ most potent salvo, that it wields considerable power without sufficient accountability to the people it serves?
Duininck graciously allowed that those are “questions worth asking” before dashing cold water on them.
“Any change in governance will just bring a different set of challenges,” he said. Accountability to the voters directly rather than accountability to the voters via the governor would change the council’s thinking, and not necessarily for the better.
“The two primary objectives of the council and council members should be to think regionally, not locally, and to think long-term, not short-term. Who is in the best position to do that? I’m not sure any elected official is,” Duininck said.
True enough: People whose names appear on ballots are prone to a vision disorder that does not allow them to see beyond the next election.
But by tying the Metropolitan Council so closely to the governor’s office, its founders assured that it would always be an object of suspicion — and worse — among the governor’s partisan opponents.
The 1967 Legislature could not have foreseen how serious a problem that would become 50 years on. They were Conservatives and Liberals, after all, not Republicans and DFLers. Both of the two parties that vied for the governor’s office then were dispersed throughout the metro area. Even the Minneapolis City Council had a Republican majority.
A Minnesota in which DFLers have a lock on the urban core and Republicans firmly control exurbia would have been hard for them to imagine. Neither would they have believed that one Met Council service — light-rail transit — would be weaponized for partisan combat.
That’s what 50 years have wrought. Those changes almost guarantee fights like the one that played out this year at the Legislature. Republican majorities sought to remake the Metropolitan Council into a collection of elected local government officials chosen by other elected local government officials. They sought to shift power away not only from the DFL governor but also from Minneapolis and St. Paul, under a representational scheme that favored suburban counties.
Their move ran into a brick wall of resistance from Gov. Mark Dayton. That’s not unusual from a governor where the council is concerned. Both Republican Govs. Arne Carlson and Tim Pawlenty also vetoed the Legislature’s efforts to mess with their Met Council appointment authority.
But a future Republican governor might not be either as willing or politically able to defend gubernatorial prerogatives and, by extension, state oversight. Wresting control of the Met Council from the governor has become a matter of GOP dogma.
This year’s Republican legislators seemed to be serving notice: Elect a Republican to succeed Dayton, and the Metropolitan Council will be in for big changes. Fifty years of accountability to the state via the governor for planning and operating services like transit, water treatment, parks, housing and more could be passed to a collective of local elected officials who answer to their own constituencies.
That’s a big-deal change that ought to be debated in the 2018 gubernatorial race.
Duininck won’t be party to that debate as council chair. The 36-year-old former construction worker and union official leaves at the end of this month to take a job he said he couldn’t refuse, becoming director of government affairs for the six-state Northern States Regional Council of Carpenters. He’ll be succeeded by state rail director Alene Tchourumoff.
He wants it known that he’s not jumping off a sinking ship. Far from it: Metro Transit was chosen System of the Year in 2016 by the American Public Transportation Association, and the council’s parks and water treatment services win high marks nationally. The Legislature finally coughed up money that, when combined with a likely fare increase, should keep Metro Transit in the black for the next two years.
But the Legislature’s transit funding increase is one-time money. An operating deficit in excess of $100 million is forecast to be back in 2019. That deficit ought to be reason enough for a fresh debate in 2018 about how best to govern metrowide government services.
What if electing the Met Council were again part of that debate? It seemed like a good idea to Wendell Anderson and Doug Head in 1970. People who set policy and operate services with tax dollars should answer directly to the voters, they said.
That’s still a good argument — especially if the alternatives are a council that’s perpetually a partisan whipping boy and one that’s a tool of local governments.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.