Dakota County officials are split on whether to withdraw from the board of the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, the agency that manages transit in much of the south metro.

Other members of MVTA are pleading with the county to remain, saying its departure will hurt bus services and give the agency less clout against the Metropolitan Council.

The county formally joined the MVTA board just a few years ago, but is now concerned that the position creates conflicts of interest. Some officials want to return to a nonvoting role and just have an "informal liaison" attend transit board meetings. Others argue it's important to have input in MVTA decisions.

Commissioner Chris Gerlach said the informal liaison position would be "meaningless." Giving up the county's voting power would leave transit decisions in the hands of others, he said.

"It feels to me like we're retreating from an ability to represent residents," Gerlach said.

But Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler argued the county needs to get out of an awkward and inappropriate position.

The county will be studying transit needs and has to collaborate with numerous service providers on the project. If it is a formal member of one of those service providers, that appears unfair, county officials wrote in an explanation of why they might end their MVTA membership.

And in 2008, Dakota County joined the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which allocates tax dollars to transportation projects. Participating in that group and MVTA, which gets money from the board, also presents a conflict of interest, Schouweiler said.

MVTA board members disagreed. In a letter to Dakota County, they said those tax dollars are a small portion of the transit authority's budget. They also pointed out that the county's participation does not present any more of a conflict than its participation in the Met Council's Transportation Advisory Board, which also allocates funds.

The county presence on the Met Council board is federally mandated, Schouweiler said: "We don't have a choice."

Schouweiler, along with Commissioners Kathleen Gaylord and Mary Liz Holberg voted to leave MVTA at a recent county committee meeting. Commissioners Gerlach, Mike Slavik and Liz Workman voted to stay with the transit agency. Commissioner Tom Egan was absent, so the board decided to take the final vote at its Feb. 3 meeting.

Debate continues

County residents use transit services from various providers, and Holberg said the county should not be on the board of one of those agencies when it has to make hard decisions about where transit services should go and who should provide them.

"I don't believe MVTA is minimized in any way, shape or form without a member of the County Board on their board," Holberg said.

MVTA members who attended the county meeting argued otherwise.

"I think we're better together than we are separately," said Apple Valley Council Member Clint Hooppaw, who is the chairman of the MVTA board. "When you start taking a vote away from the table … I'm afraid they are going to miss out, and all of our residents are going to miss out."

In 2013, people rode MVTA buses 2.7 million times, according to the agency, and its ridership is expected to grow.

This month, Prior Lake and Shakopee joined the board that already included Apple Valley, Burnsville, Dakota County, Eagan, Rosemount, Scott County and Savage. The merger expanded the commuter services the agency provides.

MVTA also operates the Red Line rapid busway, which runs from Apple Valley to the Mall of America along Cedar Avenue.

"It's enormously important to my district. The Red Line [on] Cedar Avenue has a lot of impact," said Gerlach, who represents Apple Valley.

Members of the transit agency asked county officials to remain, saying that they need to create a "united front" against the Met Council. Suburban communities have banded together to raise concerns about the Met Council's long-range plans, saying they feel left out of the process and concerned that plans focus resources on the urban core.

Workman — who is worried about Met Council overreaching its authority — agreed with the other MVTA members. She said the county will be better off with more alliances.