The Metropolitan Council was created 50 years ago to solve significant problems. The Twin Cities region faced sewage, development and transit crises, and many communities were unable to provide essential services to their residents.
Local officials were unable to resolve these issues on their own, and policymakers saw the need for a regional governing body that could manage regional issues that transcended local boundaries.
Governed by appointed citizens, the council put Minnesota on the map for its innovative metropolitan problem-solving strategy. It continues to be the envy of many regions across the country.
The council today is responsible for coordinated services that include a regional wastewater management system renowned for high standards and low rates and a regional transit system that provided 81 million trips in 2017. It assists local governments on developing local comprehensive plans — shared between and approved by neighboring communities — to create a regional vision and provide cost-effective investments in transportation, wastewater treatment and parks.
Proposed legislation at the Legislature (HF 3273/SF 2809) would overturn the council’s governance structure and require it to be composed of local elected officials (county commissioners and city council members). The legislation would also expand the size of the council from 17 to 29 members — almost half the size of the state Senate. It further eliminates the Transportation Advisory Board, an advisory body (the majority of whom are local officials) that advises the council in its Metropolitan Planning Organization function on the allocation of federal transportation dollars.
Last week, a federal strategy was also employed by proponents having U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., propose an amendment to an FAA reauthorization bill that would repeal the council’s status as a Metropolitan Planning Organization. Lewis’ amendment would upend functional regional processes for allocating federal dollars and threaten billions of dollars in federal funding to the metropolitan region.
Despite proponents’ claim to the contrary, proposed governance changes lack support from the vast majority of metropolitan local officials who are the council’s primary constituents and who have not asked for such a significant change. Here is why we believe the proposed governance change is ill-advised:
First, local elected officials also holding office as a Met Council member would sometimes have to choose between the narrow interests of their municipality and the broad interests of the region. The council’s existing structure was designed to be able to accommodate competing interests and to resolve regional/local conflicts that can and do arise.
Public offices are incompatible when one must disregard the interests of their constituency to fulfill the duty of another office or where there is potential for a clash of loyalties. Offices are also incompatible when they are obligated to interact under law and when one may review the actions of the other. The Metropolitan Council has statutorily defined oversight and review authority over local governments in the region.
Second, most local officials would not have sufficient additional time available in their daily lives to be able to serve effectively as a council member. Many local elected officials, and certainly all county commissioners, have full-time employment obligations. Only those with the means or time to serve both roles could be selected, which would set up an inherently prejudicial selection process, resulting in members who were not necessarily reflective of the districts they represent.
Third, proponents of the governance changes in these bills argue that having the council composed of local elected officials, also known as a Council of Governments (COG), provides more direct, responsible governance. But this ignores the fact that the scope of most COGs is limited to transportation issues only and as such COGs are vastly different from this region’s Metropolitan Council. It also ignores the fact that many COGs suffer from decision paralysis and receive, at best, mixed reviews.
After 50 years, some changes could improve the council’s channels of public accountability while maintaining the integrity of our existing viable regional structure. Legislation (HF 3917/SF 3497) would provide staggered terms, which would improve the council and has broad support among local officials, and improvements in transparency in the selection process of council members. We encourage the Legislature to advance this legislation. It would refine what works well without a wholesale overhaul that creates an inherently problematic change to our regional structure.
James Hovland is mayor of Edina. Elizabeth Kautz is mayor of Burnsville. Janet Williams is mayor of Savage. This article was also submitted on behalf of the following mayors: William Droste, Rosemount; Kathi Hemken, New Hope; Gene Winstead, Bloomington; Brad Wiersum, Minnetonka; Mary Gaasch, Lauderdale; Scott Lund, Fridley; Myron Bailey, Cottage Grove; Doug Anderson, Lakeville, Sandy Martin, Shoreview, and Council Members Marc Carrier, Waconia, and Gary Hansen, Eagan.