Can you imagine trying to deliver essential services like water treatment and transit in a region with almost 200 municipalities and over a dozen counties? Sewer and bus lines don’t work well when they have to stop at city boundaries.
It didn’t work well for us, either. By the 1960s, wells, streams and rivers throughout our region were tainted with sewage. The bus system was neglected and in disrepair. Woodlands and wetlands that we now celebrate as recreation destinations were considered for commercial and housing development.
Regional issues like these need regional solutions. So in the late 1960s, the Citizens League led the effort to create the Metropolitan Council, which has been celebrated as a uniquely Minnesota innovation and means of solving regional challenges such as water treatment, transit coordination, regional parks and planning.
And it’s impossible to look at the economic data for our region over these 50 years and not conclude that we’ve been incredibly successful compared with almost any region in the country. Many things have contributed to this success, but the bottom line is that we’ve avoided costly problems that have plagued other regions — from blight to unaffordable housing to dramatic disparities in school funding and municipal services, just to name a few.
Regionalism isn’t dead, as some critics of the Met Council have claimed. In fact, it’s more important than ever. Ask any business owner or anyone who’s moved here from other parts of the country, and they’ll give you regional reasons for their decisions. They may choose to live in a particular neighborhood, but no doubt they’ll cite the regional reasons (for example, workforce, recreation and educational assets) for choosing to be here as an individual, family, and/or for their business success.
This isn’t to say that our approach right now, tackling many of these issues through the Met Council, shouldn’t be examined. There are real questions about the use of limited funds when it comes to transportation and transit; concerns of taxation without elected representation; the role of the Met Council in making decisions that get to core equity issues in our region, and the scope of authority for the council, which has grown gradually but significantly since its inception.
Some county officials think the deck is stacked against them, and toward the urban core. Four counties have gone so far as to initiate litigation over the council’s long-standing practices for allocating federal transportation funds. This call for change is almost an annual occurrence. In 2011, Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles’ report on transit also recommended changes to the Met Council.
Everyone, no matter what their opinion is about the Met Council, agrees that how we govern and how we allocate scarce resources within our region will have a tremendous impact on Minnesota’s future success and competitiveness. The importance of the region is larger than just the sum of the interests of individuals, cities and counties — and it’s larger than just the seven counties in the Met Council’s jurisdiction.
At the Citizens League, we feel some responsibility for these questions and issues. It was our original work almost 50 years ago that recognized the need for a regional system. The Legislature adopted that approach, creating the Met Council in 1967.
We think it’s time we go back and take a thorough look at the council’s performance against its goals; learn more about the concerns raised; examine the tensions between counties, cities and individual Minnesotans, and discuss some of the changes that have been suggested from the starting place of preserving the council’s regional effectiveness. (Even some opponents have admitted that such an authority must be maintained.)
Although the Citizens League holds the view that the Met Council has been a vital part of the region’s decisionmaking arrangements, we know that it needs to be critically examined in light of today’s concerns and our future needs.
We haven’t succeeded as a region because of our inherited climate or natural amenities. We’re up against places with 300 days of sunshine, oceans and mountains, not to mention warmer winters. We’re successful now because the generations before us had strong civic leaders in every sector who took on big problems, had big visions about what we should achieve, and worked together to put in place bold policies and innovative ideas in business, government, schools and nonprofits.
The world has changed in 50 years. It makes sense that we should make sure our key governing institutions like the Met Council are up for the next 50 years of challenges. The economic, social and environmental health of our region will depend on it.
Sean Kershaw is the executive director of the Citizens League.