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Commentary: It’s time for an accountable Metropolitan Council

“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 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.”

Look no further for a history of today’s Metropolitan Council, and the now 51-year-old controversy that threatens its mission, than these two sentences and the words “elected by popular vote.” They’re on page three of a Feb. 9, 1967 Citizen’s League report recommending the Minnesota Legislature create a governing body to bring order to an emerging metropolitan community.

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, it 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 and 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 and a number of failing suburban operators that were rapidly surrendering to automobile competition. Twin City Lines, the once proud operator of the finest street railway company in the Midwest, that transported 206 million annual passengers at the end of World War II, was down to fewer than 65 million annual riders and could no longer generate enough capital to replace an aging fleet.

Fifty-one years later, as the Council grew-up, its success with these, and other issues, make it a national model for regional planning and governance. It has an annual budget of $890 million and employs some 4,000 people. It is the fourth largest governmental body in the state. It determines where and how growth will occur. Yet it is the scope of its powers and its successes that undermine the Council’s future because it remains an unelected body with no direct accountability to voters or local governments. The governor appoints all of its members.

That wasn’t the intent of the Citizens League, nor was it the intent of those who supported its creation in 1967, but the Legislature and the governor’s office have been loath to surrender power to another elected body. Local governments and special interests, jealous of their turf, worked against it, as well.

It’s worrisome these same motives could be at work behind recent proposals to “reform” and “restructure” the Council, thereby weakening its regional mission. The Council, with support from the business community, has aggressively pursued light rail construction. Rail has become an “ideological issue.” Some, who oppose light rail, are among those calling for a change in governance, undoubtedly hoping to kill the Southwest corridor and Bottineau rail projects. Rail is a separate issue and should not be part of the discussion.

The Council has some responsibility for its current situation. In the past it has acted arrogantly in contesting the wishes of local governments who oppose Council mandates for growth and development. Lake Elmo comes to mind. It wanted to preserve its rural feel and open spaces and shunned shopping malls and housing projects. The Council, no doubt at the behest of developers, took it to court to enforce its mandates. That was a black eye for the Council. An elected Council, accountable to voters and the communities, would have sought a different outcome and a compromise solution.

Congressman Jason Lewis has introduced an amendment to legislation in Congress that would require all metropolitan planning organizations that receive federal funds have locally elected officials on their boards. The Metropolitan Council is presently exempt from that requirement having been grandfathered under earlier legislation.

In a statement from Rep. Lewis:

“Our amendment does not seek to change the operations or scope of the Met Council. It does not attempt to change the activities of the board. It simply requires that for a board to be in compliance they need to have locally elected official representation consistent with every other MPO in the country.”

Locally, State Sen. Eric Pratt and Rep. Tony Albright have introduced legislation that would require local officials serve on the Council.

Hopefully, both measures will be successful. It’s time for an accountable Metropolitan Council.

Please read more from The Prior Lake American: http://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-it-s-time-for-an-accountable-metropolitan-council/article_2dd1edd2-7b1f-52ec-9c40-8feeb6d6075c.html

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. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)