Signaling that affordable housing will become a higher priority, Gov.-elect Mark Dayton on Wednesday named Susan Haigh, the head of a nonprofit that builds homes for the poor, to lead the Metropolitan Council.
Haigh, 59, of St. Paul, plans to remain president of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, where she draws a salary nearly three times what she expects to earn as the new chair of the state's top urban planning agency. The Met Council oversees transportation, housing, parks and water treatment in seven Twin Cities metro counties.
Some local officials have complained that the council's planning is heavy-handed and overlooks their needs.
In recent years the council has placed its greatest emphasis on building light-rail transit and commuter rail. Haigh said transportation would continue to be the agency's major emphasis, but she wants to expand housing for low- and moderate-income people.
"I would like to see the council do more work on housing," Haigh said. "I so fundamentally believe that decent housing is a basic human right, and if more communities can provide a range of housing choices for more people, it's going to be a stronger region, and a stronger economic area."
The seven counties are expected to need an additional 51,000 low- and moderate-income housing units between 2010 and 2020.
The appointment of Haigh comes as Republicans, many of whom have been critical of rail transit, take over leadership of the state House and Senate and as Minnesota loses a powerful transportation advocate in Congress with the defeat of Rep. Jim Oberstar.
Outgoing Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said this week that one commuter project, extending the Northstar Line to St. Cloud, will be delayed at least five to 10 years because of state budget problems, lagging ridership and lack of political support.
Dayton's announcement said Haigh will help him select the other 16 members of the Metropolitan Council, "which will represent the diversity of our region and honor its tradition of enlightened nonpartisan leadership." He called Haigh "a proven leader and a consensus builder."
In an interview Wednesday, Dayton said Haigh's background on affordable housing makes it very important for her to select a senior staff "that has transit as a certainly, co-equal priority."
Potential conflict in dual role
Like state commissioners, the chair of the Metropolitan Council must be confirmed by the state Senate.
Haigh acknowledged Wednesday that some people might see a potential conflict in her dual jobs because Habitat for Humanity has received Met Council funding to finance housing programs in some cities. She said it received about $150,000, mostly through cities that applied for council funding.
"If Habitat continued to apply for that ... that would be a conflict and I would disclose that and not be engaged in the decision-making," she said.
The Met Council job pays $58,000 a year and is defined as part-time, though Bell and others say it is virtually full-time.
Haigh earned $158,000 as president and CEO of Habitat in the 12 months ending June 30, 2009, according to the most recent IRS records.
Haigh said she is confident she'll have enough time to do both jobs. "I'm so energized by both the mission at Habitat and the mission at the Met Council," she said. "I've always worked more than 40 hours a week."
Dayton said he sought assurances that Haigh could handle both roles.
"I pressed her on that," he said in the interview. "She assured me she would be able" to do it.
The nonprofit has a public policy stake in the future of the Metropolitan Council. Habitat's legislative agenda includes maintaining current agency funding for more affordable housing.
Habitat says it will help more than 900 families this year. It builds and rehabs homes with low-income families, using no-interest mortgages.
Caught flak on county board
Before arriving at the nonprofit in 2005, Haigh served 10 years as a Ramsey County commissioner, where she pushed for creation of a fund for affordable rental housing that she said produced hundreds of units.
She caught flak as a county commissioner in 2002 for proposing a 45 percent pay increase for board members, whose salaries had trailed that of commissioners in two smaller metro counties. She eventually backed a much smaller pay increase.
Haigh also worked for 12 years as a top deputy in the Ramsey County attorney's office.
She contributed a few hundred dollars to the gubernatorial campaigns of DFLers Roger Moe and Judi Dutcher in 2002 and Mike Hatch in 2006.
Haigh is married to Ramsey County District Judge Gregg Johnson, who sat on the state Canvassing Board that reviewed the election dispute between Dayton and his GOP opponent, Tom Emmer. Haigh stressed that her husband was among five members of the board who ruled unanimously. Dayton was certified after Emmer withdrew his challenge.
"I wasn't even aware of it until now," Dayton said of her husband's assignment on the Canvassing Board.
Staff writer Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report. Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210