A desire to put more deal making chips on the Legislature’s transportation bargaining table is reviving a dormant, decades-old question: What’s the rightful structure and composition of the region’s primary provider of transit services and more, the Metropolitan Council?
As if on cue, an impressive 19-member Citizens League task force is offering a new answer. It is proposing two sensible changes that should attract bipartisan support:
• The terms of Met Council members other than the chair should no longer all coincide with that of the governor. The 16 members’ terms should be staggered, as they were during the first 27 years of the council’s existence.
• The nomination process for Met Council members should become more visible, including public announcement of the finalists chosen by a nominating panel. That panel should be composed of the designees of city and county governments, as well as representatives of the citizenry.
While the task force did not do so, we would add that the governor should be confined in his appointments to candidates recommended by the nominating panel. We also would welcome the lengthening of council members’ terms to six years, to provide an additional measure of continuity on a council responsible for the region’s long-range planning.
It’s fitting that the Citizens League is offering this advice. In the mid-1960s, the league was the council’s midwife. It recommended the council’s creation as a means to solve a series of problems arising from the metro area’s rapid suburbanization in the 1950s and ’60s.
The 1967 Legislature complied but disagreed with the league in one respect: It refused — by just one vote in the state Senate — to make the new council an elected body. Instead, the council was made an arm of state government with members appointed by the governor. “The idea was that the governor would be responsible for making it work,” recalls former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, who served then-Gov. Harold LeVander as chief of staff in 1967.
Skeptics argued that gubernatorial appointment did not provide enough democratic legitimacy and accountability for an entity with the power to raise property taxes. That criticism intensified in 1994, when the council’s authority to operate transit, sewers and other regional services was expanded and the staggering of Met Council members’ terms ended. This newspaper was among those who called then for Met Council elections. The 1997 Legislature was finally sold on the idea, but Gov. Arne Carlson was not. His veto put the election idea to rest.
Since then, some council critics have advanced a problematic alternative: Make the council a panel of elected local government officials. That’s the idea embodied in a bill sponsored by state Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake. It would allow only sitting city and county officials to be eligible for appointment to the council.
Albright’s bill likely would create a smaller pool of applicants than he expects. Met Council service requires a considerable time commitment and pays just $20,000 a year. Not many people already serving in demanding local government posts could take that on, too.
What’s more, Met Council members thus chosen would likely feel the tug of divided loyalties. Tension between the council and local jurisdictions is an inevitable component of an effective regional governance arrangement. Go too far in giving the reins to local governments, and the Met Council will struggle to meet its statutory charge to provide for “the orderly and economical development, public and private, of the metropolitan area.”
Electing the Met Council would avoid that problem. But that’s not in today’s political cards — not when the party that 50 years ago was responsible for creating the council now stands squarely for less government.
But Republicans who argue that the Met Council should be disbanded or supplanted by several weaker entities are closing their eyes to the council’s value. As the Citizens League task force pointed out, the council is a homegrown success story that other metro areas regard with envy. With the power to both plan future growth and deliver needed infrastructure, it stands to be more important than ever in coming years as the region copes with a rapidly aging and diversifying population.
Though modest, the league’s recommendations are not trivial. They won’t go down easily among defenders of gubernatorial prerogative. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a bill that would have provided for staggered Met Council terms as recently as 2012.
But Dayton says he will not run again, and thus will not again appoint Met Council members. He’s a DFL governor who badly wants a transportation bill, and he knows that Republican critics of the currently configured Met Council will not easily entrust it with more transit money. The governor should be ready to strike a reasonable bargain — and to its credit, the Citizens League is pointing toward one.