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Continued: Metro public agencies are under fire for not being public enough

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 15, 2012 - 6:35 PM

Citizens first check in at a basement information booth. They show their driver's license, sign a form, get a pass and stand in line for security scanning with people getting ready to board planes.

Then they go upstairs for the public meeting.

Welcome to the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), a government agency that spends a quarter of a billion dollars a year. It caught heat recently when homeowners near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport made a rare showing at a commission meeting to complain they were surprised by a plan to shift airplane noise over their neighborhoods.

"We have to turn over a new leaf in the way we engage the public," Commissioner Rick King told the crowd at the end of the meeting.

The commission is one of two Twin Cities agencies with big responsibilities that are facing criticism for poor public accountability. The other agency, the Metropolitan Council, has run afoul of residents and businesses living near construction of a light-rail line.

Council members and commissioners who make policy for the two agencies are appointed -- mostly by the governor -- and don't hold elected positions in local government. They depend heavily on staffs that shape agendas.

Calls for a shake-up are coming from inside and outside the agencies. A Republican legislator long at odds with the Met Council has been joined by some DFL allies of the agency in supporting changes to improve accountability.

At the MAC, King looks for better ways to reach the public about agency plans.

"Perhaps social media is something we ought to look at," he said at the meeting. "Legal notices ... don't seem to be read very well."

Involving the public

The MAC provides lots of information. Its website links to pages that allow residents to track airplane flights over their neighborhoods. Online maps show the loudest decibel levels. Agency officials hosted open houses in Minneapolis and Eagan to describe the Federal Aviation Administration's new satellite system to consolidate airplane takeoffs -- and redistribute noise in the process.

Those efforts fell short in the recent controversy. MAC maps of the plan didn't illustrate clearly how it would change flight patterns. Residents who followed online links to FAA explanations found them heavy on acronyms such as RNAV. The FAA says it's short for "aRea NAVigation."

"They didn't actually tell how RNAV was going to impact us and what it meant to me living at this particular block." said Sara Thompson, whose home in southwest Minneapolis would be under one proposed flight path.

Others say it's part of a broader problem.

"The officials who are making these decisions are not elected," said Bob Kane, one of the opponents of the proposed flight pattern. "I don't feel like I have a voice."

Edina residents mobilized following news reports of the potential effects of the new flight pattern. Community leaders e-mailed instructions for how to get past airport security -- the pass allows them to share an express security lane with airline crews -- and find the room where MAC officials would vote on the plan Nov. 19. More than 100 people showed up.

After hearing emotional public testimony, the MAC recommended a partial use of the new flight system, excluding departure runways that send planes over parts of Minneapolis, Richfield and Edina.

Asked whether a more public place would have been a better venue for the meeting, MAC spokesman Patrick Hogan said rescheduling it at a MAC office building outside the airport would have confused attendees. "The lack of security at that site could pose a danger to all attending," he said.

But MAC Chairman Dan Boivin acknowledged, "Any future noise discussions will probably be off site to try to make it more convenient."

A final decision on the new takeoff system rests with the FAA.

Immediately after the meeting, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory was asked if her agency might install a system not recommended by the MAC. "We have stated that we will follow the MAC's recommendation," she said.

Last week Cory said the FAA is studying the recommendation to see whether it is feasible. "There is no scheduled date for completion of that review," she said.

Closer representation

The Met Council, which is overseeing construction of the Central Corridor light-rail line and plans for the Southwest Corridor light-rail project, also has been criticized for not being responsive enough.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank in 2011 ruled that the agency failed to assess the potential impact of disruption caused by construction of the Central Corridor line on nearby businesses. He ordered an in-depth study that was completed last week as the line nears completion.

"I think the Met Council's outreach program was a little too focused on selling the merits of the project ... and not as focused on talking with the community about their concerns," said Thomas DeVincke, an attorney for the businesses.

The legislative auditor in 2011 concluded that the agency "lacks adequate credibility and accountability" because its members are appointed by the governor and are not local elected officials with a constituency. It proposed a council combining gubernatorial appointees and local elected officials appointed to the panel with staggered terms.

Met Council chairwoman Susan Haigh said that the council is answerable to legislators and other elected officials and that any changes "should start from a discussion of how to best meet our core mission of creating a competitive region that attracts jobs."

"The council takes resident concerns -- particularly those impacted by businesses in the Central Corridor construction zone -- very seriously," she said, adding that it oversaw financial and other assistance to businesses.

Met Council critic Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, has long called for an overhaul. Two DFL supporters of the agency -- Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, both Minneapolis DFLers, favor putting elected officials on the agency.

Dibble, the incoming chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, also would like neighborhood groups and local officials to evaluate prospective appointees to the MAC to make sure they would be responsive to community concerns. The governor appoints all but two of its members -- who are appointed by the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"A lot of people ... feel the agency has to have a closer relationship with the communities it represents," Hornstein said. "There would be a little more direct accountability to the public and to voters by having elected officials."

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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