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Commentary: Calls to rein in the Met Council

By John Diers
Community columnist

Few people in the Twin Cities area are aware of the workings of the Metropolitan Council and the power it wields over their lives.

And why should they? Because it’s an unelected body, unaccountable to voters, yet it taxes, runs the region’s transit system, operates its sewer and wastewater treatment facilities, kills mosquitoes, funds regional parks and affordable housing, receives and allocates federal funding and determines how and where the region will grow.

It does all this with approximately 4,250 employees and a unified operating budget of $1.235 billion.

Next to state government, it is the most powerful agency in Minnesota and the only entity of its kind in the nation — lording it over other governments and their elected officials, compelling them to follow its mandates or suffer the consequences.

Dissent of any kind is heresy. Rebel and the Met Council will send its inquisitors to fine and punish. Refuse its mandates on growth and development and, as Lake Elmo learned a few years ago, it will bury you with litigation and million-dollar fines.

Transformed from an area of truck farms and gardens after World War II, the Twin Cities suburbs in 1967 were bursting with new housing projects, roads and schools. Yet, they lacked any regional perspective in governance or long-term vision.

Development was intruding on such basics as sewage treatment and water supplies with untreated waste going into the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, lakes and streams. Hundreds of individual septic systems and private wells foretold a public health disaster waiting to happen. There were no regional parks. Natural areas were under threat from haphazard housing projects and shopping centers. There was no regional transit system, just a faltering private bus company, Twin City Lines, which once carried 206 million annual riders on its streetcars at the end of World War II. That eventually decreased to fewer than 65 million, a ridership count so low the company wasn’t able to generate enough capital to replace its tired fleet.

The Citizens League was the architect of the Met Council. I was fresh out of the University of Minnesota in 1966 and a policy wonk on public transit. I joined the League at the time because of that interest, and I followed its efforts at laying the groundwork for regional planning. I supported regionalism then, and I do now, but not by fiat.

I still have a copy of the League’s original report and recommendations dated February 9, 1967. It was given to the Legislature as a template for the future Council. It reads:

“We recommend that the 1967 Legislature create a Metropolitan Council, directly elected by popular vote of the people, to solve the pressing area wide governmental problems of the Twin Cities area in a coordinated manner. The Council would be responsible only for those area wide functions and services which cannot be handled adequately by municipalities and counties and which are specifically assigned to the Council by the Legislature. The Council would not have any broad ‘home rule’ type grant of authority.”

The Legislature was jealous of its authority over metropolitan affairs and unwilling to relinquish that authority to an elected body accountable to voters because what emerged in 1967 was a Council appointed by the governor’s office, accountable solely to the governor and the Legislature.

There was to be no direct election by popular vote. At the time there was considerable angst and handwringing and rhetorical concern about parochialism, much as there is today, but parochialism comes with elected government, along with accountability and the need to work through and compromise for the common good. That’s what democracy is about.

The Citizens League envisioned a planning body, but the Council self-aggrandized over the years, becoming a provider of services, gobbling up public transit along with other functions that were once in separate, independent agencies. It is now a colossus of power and control that’s run by an oligarchy of technocrats and planners with no direct accountability to voters.

In its 2011 report on transit governance, the Office of the Legislative Auditor said of the Council: “More and more, the Met Council, as presently constituted, is a relic. Its complex and unclear lines of authority and accountability give metro residents no direct stake in their destiny.”

In 2023 little has changed. Witness the botched Southwest light rail project that is years behind schedule, several hundred million dollars over budget and lacking accountability.

Reform is needed. The Council should be made an elected body and returned to its original role as a planning agency with its operating functions restored to separate agencies.

Will it happen? Legislation is pending. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Frank Orenstein, DFL-Minneapolis, have introduced legislation in the Senate (SF1624) and House (HF2092) that would make the Met Council an elected body. There is interest and support for the legislation. I wish them success in their efforts.

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.

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