WASHINGTON – Four suburban Twin Cities counties say they are agitated with the way the Metropolitan Council is making decisions and have hired a federal lobbyist in hopes of gutting the regional planning organization’s appointed board of directors.
The lobbyist, who represents Anoka, Carver, Scott and Dakota counties, will work to make the case to the U.S. Department of Transportation that the Met Council — the seven-county regional agency whose 17 members are appointees of Gov. Mark Dayton — is violating a federal rule by distributing more than $660 million a year without appropriate input from elected officials.
The counties say that a somewhat obscure rule buried in the most recent federal transportation bill requires such regional government bodies to have elected officials — not just political appointees — making ultimate decisions on their boards.
The action by the counties drew a blistering response from Dayton, who said it was “really, really reprehensible” that they had gone “sneaking off to Washington” behind his back.
The four counties argue that 42 percent of the metro area lives outside the core counties of Ramsey and Hennepin and that there is an inherent conflict of interest within the Met Council because the decisions about how to steer hundreds of millions in tax dollars lie ultimately with people who are gubernatorial appointees.
“It’s not about simply griping about allocation of transportation or parks money or housing in any given particular funding cycle,” said Dakota County Commissioner Chris Gerlach.
“We look at it and say, there is a fundamental problem with the way the Met Council functions. You think it’s one thing, but it’s really not,” Gerlach said. “You think that a Met Council is made up of 16 individuals and a chair appointed by various districts and therefore you have a diverse group that is going to … advocate for the region. It’s not that at all. What it is, it’s a state agency.”
The counties say they have been particularly riled since seeing how the Met Council planned on scoring transit projects with weights given to nonmotorized transportation modes and to concentrated areas of poverty — issues that county officials say do not reflect suburban problems such as congested intersections.
“It seems as though everything is focused on the urban core at the expense of the suburbs,” said Rhonda Sivarajah, chairwoman of the Anoka County Board.
Quarrels between cities and suburbs about how to spend public dollars are as old as the cities and suburbs themselves. But the decision by the four counties to hire a federal lobbyist — before checking with the governor — is viewed by Dayton as a nuclear option.
“It’s really, really reprehensible on their part to be sneaking off to Washington behind the back of — I don’t know if the people on the Met Council were aware of it, but at least behind my back,” Dayton said. “And then come to the state of Minnesota for funding for their projects and the like? If we have a disagreement within our family, then the place to resolve that is within our family. … To go out to Washington behind our backs and trash our situation here in Minnesota, and denigrate Minnesota in front of federal authorities, and try to turn the federal government against Minnesota is really, really irresponsible. I’m appalled to just learn this.”
Anoka County will have spent at least $15,000 in the first quarter of 2015 to enlist the services of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, according to lobbyist disclosures. Filings show the three other counties also hired Miller/Wenhold and said they plan to spend $15,000 to $20,000 each in public dollars this year to research options for how to get around the Met Council. The lobbyist, Paul Miller, did not return calls or e-mails to comment for this story.
Counties have been angry at the Met Council’s composition for years. The council — created by the Legislature in the 1960s — oversees transportation planning, as well as Metro Transit, wastewater treatment, regional parks and affordable housing for the four counties, plus Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties.
In the 1970s, the council created a Transportation Advisory Board, made up of elected officials, to dole out advice to the appointed board on spending decisions. Even today, Met Council officials say they rarely disagree or upend decisions made by the Transportation Advisory Board.
Counties still aren’t happy, though. Four years ago, they were angry enough to take their case to the Transportation Department, which eventually affirmed, via a letter, that the current makeup is legal. That 2011 letter is still used by the Met Council to justify its decisionmaking process.
Changing the Met Council’s board would require a change in state statute; several proposals pending in the Legislature would examine the issue.
The way the Met Council operates is extremely rare: A 2010 report paid for by the Federal Highway Administration found that 94 percent of organizations like the Met Council are made up of elected officials.
Anoka, Dakota, Scott and Carver county officials say the law, and bureaucratic language surrounding it, has changed in the past two years and that the newest federal transportation spending bill, which devotes about $50 billion annually to state transportation projects, requires elected officials to have more power.
“It would make the sausage-making much messier,” said Gary Shelton, administrator for Scott County. “But, really, should we just appoint some group to decide what all the policies are? I don’t think so. As messy as it might get, the people who are elected are supposed to make the policy and the rules.”
Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck disagrees. He says there are no conflicts of interest between the Met Council and Dayton’s office.
“To me, the governor is the most regional person in the state,” said Duininck, who is married to Dayton’s chief of staff. “He can’t choose a side. He has to advocate for a decision for the entire region. Ultimately, the governor is someone who cares about the outcome to both.”
Duininck said it would be more of a conflict if counties appointed their own board members because those counties wouldn’t have the state’s interest, at large, at heart.
One of Duininck’s predecessors disagrees.
Curtis Johnson was the chairman between 1995 and 1998 under Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. He said the “time is right” to consider changing the makeup of the Met Council board because it should not be an “extension of the governor’s office.”
“I thought the council should be as independent as possible in doing its job,” he said. “If you’re going to serve just out of fear of being removed, you can’t really do what needs to be done.”
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this story.