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Susan Haigh is not a newcomer to the public eye, but as the new leader of an $800 million regional agency that manages an array of crucial daily services for residents around the Twin Cities, she is stepping now into a sharper and likely harsher public spotlight.
Haigh, a former Ramsey County commissioner who also leads the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity locally, is Gov. Mark Dayton's pick to head the Metropolitan Council at a time when Republicans in the Legislature have new power to scrutinize an agency that some of them say has overstepped its bounds.
The Met runs one of the biggest transit systems in the nation and holds sway over sewage treatment, parks and subsidized housing for nearly 3 million people in the metro area. It has 3,700 employees, most of whom run the state's largest bus operation, the Northstar commuter train line and an expanding light-rail system. It treats a quarter-billion gallons of wastewater a day, plans and funds 54,000 acres of parkland and provides financial assistance to 6,500 households.
"We may take a more aggressive look at it," said Sen. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, chairman of a committee that has oversight of the council.
"The Met Council has long been a target of scrutiny that really has never taken place," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, another member of the oversight committee. "It seems to expand and grow all the time."
The Legislative Auditor weighed in Friday with a report critical of Twin Cities transit planning and management that said the Met Council "lacks adequate credibility and accountability." It called for including some elected local officials on the council, which is now entirely appointed by the governor.
Big agency, huge agenda
The audit comes as the Met Council is being reshaped by Dayton and Haigh after eight years under Gov. Tim Pawlenty's Republican administration.
The Legislature created the Met Council in 1967 to coordinate planning and development in the Twin Cities. The Legislature later strengthened the council's power and allowed it to take over transit and wastewater treatment from local communities.
It plans to spend nearly $800 million this year, more than spent by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, with the state contributing more than a fourth and local property taxes making up about 10 percent. Wastewater fees make up more than a fourth of the revenues, with transit fares and federal funds providing more money.
At her swearing-in, Haigh summarized her priorities: transit, economic development and housing.
"I know some areas better than others, so I know I have a lot to learn in the areas I haven't spent time working in," she told dozens of council members and staff.
On transit, Haigh noted that as a Ramsey County commissioner she was an early advocate of the Central Corridor light-rail line and called herself a "strong supporter" of plans for light-rail in southwest Minneapolis and nearby suburbs.
On economic development, Haigh said, "That is going to be important to Governor Dayton -- and certainly I will need to learn more about it. ... I will help to work with the governor, with legislators ... as we think about how we can ... work on job creation."
A call for more housing
But Haigh was most passionate about low- and moderate-income housing.
"As far as I'm concerned, housing is the bedrock for stable families, for stable neighborhoods, for a healthy and vital region. And this will be another priority for me. I love the vision of the council that links housing and transit and transportation corridors."
The Met Council already provides grants to communities that negotiate goals for low- and moderate-income housing. But communities fell short of their goals by 44,000 homes and apartments between 1996 and 2008. After they complained they could not afford to meet the goals, the council last year lowered the targets.
Some DFLers want the Met Council to be more assertive.
"Under this administration we will start paying closer attention to making sure that communities are providing housing choices for a mix of income levels," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who served on the Met Council from 2000 to 2002.
But putting teeth in housing goals will invite resistance.
"I think there probably would be pushback from some of the communities," said Bill Jaffa, executive director of the Scott County division that deals with low-income housing. "They're going to say, 'We agree in principle ... but our resources have basically dried up. We have other needs, we have roads, police, fire. They've got to come first.'"
Republican legislators are skeptical about the Met Council's role in affordable housing. A common refrain is that the economic downturn has already made many homes and apartments more affordable.
Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, is waiting to see Haigh's proposals.
"It's one thing to advocate and promote a particular issue. Let's see what tools she uses," Gerlach said. "How much carrot, how much stick."
In an interview, Haigh avoided specifics about her housing plans.
"I'm not going to tell you how we're going to do this," she said. "I'm just going to tell you it's going to be something that we're going to look at, and we're going to do it in cooperation with mayors and local communities and the Legislature."
Even under Pawlenty, who was sympathetic to local control, some suburban officials accused the Met Council of being heavy handed. Scott County is considering suing the council over transportation policy.
Scott County Commissioner Jon Ulrich worked with Haigh years ago on a transit panel. "She's ... very sharp, nice person, good to work with," he said.
Is it possible to be part time?
Haigh is also likely to draw attention for her decision to keep her other job. After leaving the Ramsey County board in 2005, she became president and CEO of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that builds homes for the poor. It's a full-time job with an annual salary of $158,000, according to IRS records.
The Met Council chair is classified as a part-time job, paying $58,000 a year, but her predecessors say it's really full-time work.
"That adds a little bit more grist to the mill," said Limmer. "I can't imagine how anyone can run the place as a part-timer, and then having another full-time job that demands, I would imagine, a great amount of focus and energy."
Haigh said she didn't know how many hours she would spend at the job but "absolutely" would have enough time for it. "I took the job with the understanding that it is a part-time job and I'm going to give it my all," she said.
Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210