The Minnesota Senate overwhelmingly approved a menu of reforms to the hotly debated Metropolitan Council, changes that include staggering terms for council members and a more transparent selection process but still leave all 17 members up to the governor.
The Senate rejected what would have been a more dramatic change for the regional planning agency, voting down an amendment that called for elected city and county officials to serve on the Met Council.
The reform proposal authored by Sen. Scott Dibble easily passed the DFL-controlled Senate by a 41-21 vote.
Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, relied heavily on recommendations made by the Citizens League, a nonprofit policy group that came up with the concept of the Met Council 50 years ago.
Under the reform plan, terms would be staggered so the entire council doesn’t turn over with every gubernatorial election. An expanded 13-member nominating committee would vet the candidates and make its recommendations public, whether or not the governor accepts them.
“That is an attempt to create greater sunshine, transparency,” Dibble said.
The nominating committee would include three city representatives, three county representatives and seven others of the governor’s choosing.
Dibble said there’s no reform plan that will resolve all friction between the Met Council and the metro-area cities and counties it serves.
“There will always be tension and competition between local units of government. …” Dibble said. “That’s actually a good thing. It gives rise to better ideas and debate where we can forge a consensus.”
Some critics of the powerful agency said Dibble’s plan ignores the most glaring problem with the Met Council: taxation without representation.
The Met Council is the only major regional planning agency in the country run by unelected officials, critics say. It controls a $987 million operating budget and oversees regional planning, Metro Transit and the regional sanitary sewer system.
“We need to make sure the Met Council is not just an extension of the governor or another state agency, but [is] accountable to the citizens it serves,” said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake.
“I was hoping we would get some actual substantial reform in the Met Council. This doesn’t make any substantive change. I won’t be voting for this bill,” said Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound. “Such minimal change is not worth the discussion.”
Others said that any reform, however small, is a step in the right direction.
“This is not all the change I would have sought but it’s something,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.
The bill is far from a done deal. It still needs to pass the Republican-controlled House and then get Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature, which could be the toughest hurdle. Three other attempts to reform the Met Council were vetoed by three different governors, including Dayton.
Met Council reform could be used this session as a bargaining chip to get a transportation bill passed that includes the Southwest light-rail line, which would link downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.
The controversial 14.5-mile line needs $135 million from state coffers to qualify for $895 million in federal matching funds. If the state funds are not forthcoming this session, the project could be at risk.
“The governor is reviewing the details of that proposal,” said Matt Swenson, Dayton’s spokesman. “But until Republican members of the conference committee come forward with a transportation solution, it is premature to take a position on individual provisions.”
Asked about potential reforms Monday, Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said he’s open to suggestions. “If it helps open the door for transit, I’m open to it,” he said.