The Metropolitan Council was created 50 years ago by Republican-controlled state government. That history adds a dash of irony to the efforts by Republican legislators this session to re-engineer the Met Council into a planning agency and regional services coordinator far different — and, we fear, less effective — than has existed since 1967.
Embedded in the transportation funding measure that Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed Monday and also moving separately in the GOP-controlled Legislature are bills that would enlarge the council from 16 to 28 members and alter its composition, shifting power away from state government and toward local governments, particularly the five suburban counties. That’s a drastic change that the DFL governor says goes too far. We concur, and urge Dayton to employ as many vetoes as necessary to block an overhaul that appears unlikely to improve public planning and services in the seven-county Twin Cities region.
Unhappiness with the Metropolitan Council among those who want local governments to control development is nothing new. It’s an almost unavoidable byproduct of an entity intentionally wedged between state and local governments and assigned to rein in the public costs of metro growth. Since its founding, council members have been appointed by the governor — and are not themselves elected officials — so that the council would be accountable to the whole state, which already in the 1960s was bearing a significant share of the public cost of metro development.
Most of those lines of accountability would be severed under this year’s GOP proposals. The Met Council’s chair would still be a gubernatorial appointee but would revert to part-time status, as was the case before 2015 and proved inadequate then. But municipal officials would select a council member from their own ranks in each of the 16 existing council districts; each of the seven metro counties would choose one county commissioner to serve; and seats would be reserved for the state transportation commissioner and three representatives of various transportation modes.
The result would not only be a larger, more unwieldy body. It would also dilute representation of the two core cities — and their more diverse populations — while amplifying suburban voices. It would add to the council local government officials whose political loyalty would be to their hometown constituents, not to the region or state as a whole. It would result in a comparatively small pool of potential council members, since the city representatives would be expected to serve in two demanding part-time positions that provide minimal compensation. (Met Council members are paid $20,000 a year.) And the council’s transportation contingent would make that topic dominant, diminishing attention to aviation, housing, parks, open space and wastewater treatment, all of which are part of the council’s purview.
Last year the Citizens League — an organization whose advice guided the council’s creation 50 years ago — recommended less sweeping changes in response to the council’s critics. To lessen the council’s tie to one governor and ease the disruption of complete turnover whenever the governor’s office changes hands, the Citizens League called for staggered terms for council members. To increase input from local governments, the league recommended a more public nomination process for council members that would include screening of nominees by a committee of local elected officials.
Those ideas have been endorsed by a broad bipartisan group that includes the Association of Metropolitan Municipalities and two former Met Council chairs who served Republican governors, Peter Bell and Curt Johnson. In a letter to Dayton, that group called the proposed GOP changes “inappropriate” and fretted that if enacted, “parochial interests would take precedence at the Metropolitan Council at the expense of the region.”
Despite being the target of partisan criticism, the Met Council has a solid record of accomplishment. Last year, its Metro Transit service was designated one of three outstanding “systems of the year” by the American Public Transportation Association. The council’s wastewater management and regional parks systems are consistently rated highly among their peers. When a government entity is functioning this well, the conventional wisdom about things that “ain’t broke” ought to apply.