Fifty years after its founding, the Metropolitan Council was credited with keeping sewage out of rivers and planning for the region’s growth but also faulted for losing the trust of some suburban cities and counties.
Former leaders of the Twin Cities’ unique regional government offered candid views Thursday on the perennial controversies surrounding the agency, which was founded in 1967 and oversees wastewater, transit and land use planning for the seven-county metro area.
The bipartisan panel of former Met Council chairs convened during an anniversary celebration at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center. Republican lawmakers in particular have criticized what they feel is the council’s expanding scope and lack of accountability to local governments, as its members are appointed by the governor, not elected. The council’s structure has been controversial since its inception.
Former Chairman Curt Johnson, who was appointed by then-Gov. Arne Carlson, said the council must give local governments a larger role in regional governance.
“They feel like they’re second-class citizens in making regional decisions,” Johnson said. “And the noise is getting louder, the pressure is getting more intense. I think it is absolutely inevitable there will be a governance change.”
Johnson expressed concerns about local elected officials serving double duty as Met Council members, however. He added that the controversy that surrounds the council is better than irrelevance.
“I think it’s getting more media attention because it is engaged in things that does divide people, that does stir them up,” Johnson said. “And that’s probably a good thing. The worst thing that could happen to the council is not being noticed at all.”
Reflecting some of those concerns, moderator Brian McDaniel read a question from Republican Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia.
“The council’s scope of authority has grown over the last 50 years from simple planning to wastewater, transit, housing, and some believe that by 2040 the council will address such things as the achievement gap, social justice, and global warming,” Nash said in a written question, asking whether the council had a “runaway scope of authority.
Former Chairman Ted Mondale, appointed by Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, said the council’s responsibilities have been created by the Legislature.
“The Met Council is doing exactly what the bipartisan Legislature told them to do,” Mondale said. He added that the council should not reach beyond what people have asked for.
Former Chairwoman Susan Haigh, appointed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, said she agreed that it makes sense for local elected officials to have a strong voice in regional governance.
“You can do that through partnership. You can do that through good relationships,” Haigh said. “And I think that much of the conversation that we have today about the Met Council — we know is being kind of revved up for a broader political purpose.”
During opening remarks, Dayton said the council remains crucial to the area even as confidence in it has diminished over the years.
“The Met Council contributes so essentially to the cohesion and the quality of life in this region. It’s not perfect. Nothing is,” Dayton said. “But if those who revel in the council bashing would engage in council building, and fund adequately its essential services, we would all experience better lives and better futures.”
Dayton said the growth and decentralization of the region since the 1960s has contributed to the council’s conflict with local governments, some of whom fear tax dollars are being unfairly distributed.
Council Chairwoman Alene Tchourumoff highlighted the region’s need for affordable housing and improved transit. She juxtaposed the council’s massive, unified wastewater treatment system with Pittsburgh, which lacks such a system and spills sewage into its rivers.
“Despite other environmental challenges in the river, we can rest assured that our wastewater treatment efforts are contributing to a cleaner and healthier river,” Tchourumoff said.
The Met Council is one of the most powerful regional governments in the country, with responsibilities far exceeding regional bodies in other metro areas. Johnson said he remembers delegations from many other cities visiting during his tenure in the 1990s — admiring the “unusual” and “rare” regional governance.
“When they see it and they leave they always say, ‘Gee, we wish we could get one of those for our region,” Johnson said. “And we always have to confess: Well, if we had it to do over today we couldn’t get that either.”