On May 18, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill that, among other things, would change the composition of the Metropolitan Council, from being appointed by the governor to being made up of local government officials. Gov. Mark Dayton is likely to veto this bill, as he did a similar one last year.
Meanwhile, an amendment to a bill in Congress reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, introduced by Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., and passed by the U.S. House on April 27, would require the Met Council’s decisionmaking body to include local government representatives to receive federal funding.
The argument of those advocating for change is straightforward: no taxation without representation. The Met Council is one of only two federally mandated metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that levy taxes on residents but have no local government representation. (The other is Portland Metro, which is directly elected.)
Minnesota Republicans have been no great fans of the Met Council in recent years, while Democrats have rushed to its defense. But both sides fail to appreciate the historical reasons for the Met Council’s structure. If the council has an accountability problem, it should be correctly diagnosed before it is cured.
The Met Council’s creators — who were, it should be noted, largely Republicans — were deeply concerned with democratic accountability. Minnesota had just gone through a bruising battle over legislative redistricting, so equal representation was a sacrosanct principle. The council of governments model, in which elected local politicians would make up the council’s board, was viewed as impracticable and undesirable. Lawmakers believed there were too many municipalities to ensure equal representation and accountability to local governments. They also did not trust local politicians to set aside their parochial agendas and act in the regional interest.
They believed precisely that to be effective, the council had to be autonomous from local government.
Three options emerged between 1965 and 1967, each providing for a different form of public accountability:
• Appointment of qualified citizens by the legislative delegations of each Senate district in the region would preserve equal representation while routing accountability through the state Legislature.
• Electing council members would also maintain equal representation while providing direct democratic accountability.
• Executive appointment would make the council indirectly accountable — to the people of Minnesota as a whole — through the governor.
Why did the Legislature ultimately choose the third path, gubernatorial appointment? In short, the Legislature believed that the Met Council should be understood as neither a form of local government nor an intermunicipal coordinating body — but as a state agency.
Legislators recognized that an economically, socially and environmentally healthy metro region was in the entire state’s interest, and believed that the state’s leadership needed an instrument to assert this interest. A state agency would make the council accountable to all Minnesotans through the directly elected state government.
There have been numerous opportunities to revisit this decision. Each time, the Legislature has rejected direct election in favor of state appointment. For decades, Congress has accommodated what is in effect the state’s metropolitan policy by waiving the requirement that MPOs have local government representation.
A historical perspective reveals what is missing from today’s debate: recognition of the council’s role as the state’s means of asserting its interest in metropolitan affairs.
Converting the council into a club of local governments would eliminate this function while providing no greater direct democratic accountability than gubernatorial appointment. If reformers really are interested in democratic accountability, they should champion direct election, not local government control.
But what’s seldom discussed is the most important implication of the federal and state reform bills — that they would sever the council’s accountability to outstate Minnesotans through the governor and Legislature — to voters and taxpayers who have a strong interest in the success of a region where more than half of Minnesotans live and which produces 75 percent of the state’s GDP.
Zack Taylor is director of the Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance at Western University in London, Canada. His paper “Unwanted Metropolis? The State of Minnesota and the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council in Historical Perspective” will be published by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs later this year.