With his signature humor on display, Charlie Zelle was sworn in Wednesday as the new chairman of the Metropolitan Council, the metro area’s planning agency.
“I hope you all aren’t going to make public comments at my first meeting,” Zelle said to more than 100 friends, family, colleagues and staff who packed the council chambers in St. Paul and later gave him a standing ovation.
Most of them quickly left the room after Zelle was sworn in by Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and a regular council meeting ensued.
Zelle, 64, was named to the post by Gov. Tim Walz last month after Nora Slawik stepped down as chairwoman due to health reasons after just 10 months on the job. Zelle served as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation under Gov. Mark Dayton.
The Met Council’s vast mission includes oversight of public transit, affordable housing, wastewater systems and land-use planning. The council has about 4,500 employees and a nearly $1.2 billion budget.
On Wednesday, Zelle did not offer details about his strategy for the council — instead he kept it light and expressed gratitude for the appointment. The work of the council “is not just about infrastructure; it’s about people, and that’s been my passion all along,” he said.
A self-professed “bus guy” whose grandfather founded the transportation company Jefferson Lines, Zelle joked on Wednesday he was “familiar with the smell of diesel fuel. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized diesel wasn’t my father’s cologne.”
One of the largest regional agencies of its kind in the country, the Met Council is overseen by a 17-member council appointed by the governor. Because it can supersede the decisions of local governments, it occasionally clashes with lawmakers and local officials in communities across the region.