With a challenged transit system and the release of a scathing report detailing mismanagement of Southwest line construction, some lawmakers at the State Capitol say the time is ripe to reform the Metropolitan Council.
The idea has been studied before, with countless — and ultimately fruitless — recommendations. But this time, some fashion of reform could stick: there's bipartisan support in the Legislature, and Gov. Tim Walz is reportedly game to discuss the issue.
"I have never seen such passion for restructuring and reform of the Met Council in 20-plus years," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the author of a bill calling for a legislative task force to recommend Met Council reforms.
The Met Council's 16 members and chair have been appointed by the governor since the powerful regional planning body was created 56 years ago by the Legislature. The council's critics say that reforming its structure could make it more transparent and accountable to the public.
Many have suggested that some or all council members be elected, or that it consist of elected officials such as mayors and county commissioners. Others say that simply staggering members' terms could work just as well.
With a $1.2 billion annual budget and the power to levy taxes and issue bonds — plus oversight of the metro area's wastewater treatment, affordable housing, land use regulations and a vast suburban park system — the council and its work touch nearly all the Twin Cities' 3.7 million residents.
It also builds and operates the region's public transportation system, through Metro Transit — one reason it's proven controversial of late.
"The Met Council has really gone off the rails," said Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who has written two books about local government and helped create the current council structure in 1994. He pushed for elected members in the 1990s, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Arne Carlson.
"When tyrannies go bad, they don't get any better," Orfield said. "In democracies, you can throw the bums out."
A bill has been introduced in the Senate that calls for Met Council members to be elected. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill's author, said the council as constituted is "entirely beholden" to the governor and that members "are constrained from articulating any initiative outside what the chief executive has authorized."
A spokesperson for Walz said the governor is "open to governance reform and any efforts to make the Met Council more accountable." And Walz himself said Thursday that while there's no guarantee an elected Met Council would operate differently, he's been in favor of making it elected for several years.
"I put it in 2019 in the budget negotiations with the Republicans," he said. "I offered this up as something and they were not interested at that time."
A few Republicans have joined the effort this session. Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, is co-author of the House bill that called for council members to be elected before it was amended. She said bipartisan support is not out of the question, especially given the highly publicized problems associated with the $2.7 billion Southwest light-rail project.
Many on both sides of the aisle cite the current state of the Metro Transit system — which is plagued with issues of crime and poor service — as an impetus for change.
"I sense something dramatic needs to happen," Robbins said.
Federal funding concerns
In the past, Hennepin County commissioners have opposed initiatives to elect Met Council members. But Commissioner Marion Greene testified last week before the Senate Transportation Committee that it was "an idea whose time has come."
"An elected Met Council would be more accountable to the district and to the voters and to the region that it serves," she said.
The Met Council was formed in 1967, as the metro region's population ballooned following World War II. With rapid growth came problems that crossed municipal and county lines: septic systems polluting well water, burgeoning suburbs with failing sewage systems, and a privately owned bus system on the verge of shutdown.
Today, the council is one of the most powerful organizations of its kind in the United States, with responsibilities far exceeding regional bodies in most other metro areas. Only Portland, Ore., has a similar body — but its members are elected. Voter turnout for Portland's Metro Council is typically high, former member Robert Liberty recently testified, because the issues are of intense interest to residents.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor suggested in 2011 that the council should consist of appointed and elected members serving staggered terms. A group organized by the Citizens League in 2016, and a Walz-convened blue ribbon panel in 2020, both recommended that appointees serve staggered terms.
Hornstein isn't buying it. "Staggered terms are not acceptable," he said, adding that the proposed task force has a legislative mandate to craft strong reforms — and soon.
However, the mayors of Minnetonka and Savage recently testified at the Capitol that they oppose electing council members. Edina Mayor Jim Hovland wrote the Senate committee that such a move would "threaten the effectiveness of our regional government and its mission to provide comprehensive regional planning, infrastructure and services in a coordinated and efficient fashion."
Hovland chairs the Met Council's Transportation Advisory Board, an obscure 34-member committee that funnels millions in federal funding every two years to road and transit projects throughout the region. The federal government has designated the Met Council as a "metropolitan planning organization" qualified to accept and parse federal funds. Should the Met Council become an elected body, Hovland wrote, federal funding and the projects attached to it may be compromised.
Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle expressed similar concerns in his letter to the Senate committee. "An area of uncertainty is whether transportation grants would be affected" should the council retool itself as an elected body," he wrote.
However, hearings at the Capitol in recent weeks have drawn several citizens calling for a change in how Met Council members are chosen.
Mary Pattock, a longtime Southwest critic who represents several Minneapolis neighborhood groups, said last week's legislative auditor's report on the troubled light-rail line confirmed that the council is "arrogant and out of control."
"Now it's the responsibility of legislators to fix the mess — reform the council and make it accountable to the public," she said. "If they don't, they'll be just as negligent as the Met Council."