The Aug. 4 commentary “Met Council actually serves Twin Cities area quite well” by former Met Council staffer Steven Dornfeld makes an impassioned defense of the Met Council’s good works in light of perceived Republican attacks.
Dornfeld was half right. The council does good works for the region. However, it’s not under attack because of the GOP, but rather because of an inability to evolve into a 21st century regional authority that better reflects the communities and citizens it serves. The debate is not whether to change a 50-year-old model — it’s how to change the council to answer modern needs.
As a body made up entirely of appointments by one person, the governor, our Met Council represents the interests primarily of that governor, much like a state agency. This year that governor is Mark Dayton. However, in January of 2019 the council’s membership will change with appointments by a newly elected governor — maybe a Republican, maybe a DFLer or maybe an independent.
As pointed out in a report by the National Association of Regional Councils for regional economic partners in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan area, a limitation for the Met Council is its political nature. With its leadership politically appointed, there are challenges to ensuring long-term consistency of policy directives and priorities.
A number of reforms to Met Council governance have been proposed recently. One respected civic group has proposed staggering the terms of council members to provide more continuity when administrations change. Another prominent think tank has proposed outright abolition of the council, citing what it believes to be overreach of taxing authority. There are also calls to elect members of the Met Council, so that they are directly accountable to voters.
We support a nonpartisan initiative called the Metropolitan Governance Transparency Initiative (MGTI). Proposed by cities and counties, it would align the Met Council with every other regional planning organization in the country. Under the MGTI proposal, the Met Council would be made up of elected officials from metro-area cities and counties who are already engaged in their communities and able to bring greater awareness and connections with local and regional issues.
Regional planning authorities, often called Councils of Governments (COGs), are necessary tools to manage metropolitan growth and efficiency in major cities around the country. Cities like Denver, Seattle and San Francisco have award-winning and admired COGs coordinating issues of transportation, green space, wastewater treatment, aging services, etc.
The cities mentioned above conform to federal law. Our Met Council does not.
Let’s look at Denver, a metropolitan area similar to ours with a population slightly over 3 million and a growth rate outpacing the nation’s. Denver’s Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) is highly acclaimed locally for its effective planning for the area.
DRCOG was created in 1955, before our Met Council was established in 1967, as a planning organization of local governments collaborating to establish guidelines, set policy and allocate funding in the areas of transportation, growth and development, aging and disability resources. DRCOG’s board of directors is made up of 56 city council members, county commissioners, mayors and town board members, as well as three nonvoting members designated by Colorado’s governor. It has enjoyed an award-winning record of success and been called out as a metro area that works to forge partnerships and overcome many of the suburban/urban tensions that can distract regional solutions to big problems.
Our proposal (find more information at www.metrogovernance.com) takes the best from the COG model and applies the uniquely Minnesotan parts of the Met Council that, as Dornfeld says, have largely served us well. It installs a governance model that works well in similar cities, aligns local governments more closely with our Met Council, is more accountable to the public and better represents local and regional values and interests while benefiting from continuity in leadership. A Met Council made up — at least in large measure — of local elected officials is that model of governance.
Change is coming. It’s time to have a conversation among local elected officials about what kind of change we want, to best improve the responsiveness and transparency of the Met Council’s work. Minnesota’s current and future governor must be part of that discussion. So, too, should be the local constituents affected by the Met Council’s actions.
Kevin Burkart serves on the Prior Lake City Council. Jason King is a City Council member in Blaine.