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Commentary: Time for broad Met Council reform

Commentary: Time for broad Met Council reform

Posted in the Prior Lake American: Friday, March 4, 2016 12:00 pm

By John Diers

Few people are aware of the workings of the Metropolitan Council and the power it wields over their lives. And why should they? Because it’s unaccountable to voters, yet it taxes, runs the regions transit system, operates its sewer and wastewater treatment facilities, pays to kill mosquitoes, funds regional parks and affordable housing, receives and allocates federal funding and has a 2040 plan that proposes to determine how and where the region will grow. It does all this with 3,700 employees and a budget of $700 million.

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 suffering the consequences.

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That’s been the tale of the council since it was created by the Legislature in 1967. 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 Citizens League at the time because of that interest, and I followed its efforts to lay the groundwork for regional planning. I supported regionalism then, and I do now, but not by fiat.

I still have a copy of the Citizens League’s original report and recommendations dated Feb. 9, 1967. It was given to the Legislature as a template for the future 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 area in a coordinated manner,” it states. “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 of the people. At the time there was considerable angst and hand wringing about parochialism, much as there is today, but parochialism comes with elected government, along with accountability and the need to compromise for the common good. That’s what our democratic institutions are about.

The Citizens League’s plan called for a body that would shape and accommodate growth through planning with the advice and input of local government from the bottom up, not the top down. Instead, we have a Met Council that’s dominated by a cadre of social engineers and planners controlled by special interests, principally pro-growth types — all culminating in the Met Council’s current 2040 development plan that’s embedded itself in the philosophy, policy making and present direction of Prior Lake and other local governments.

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. In a 2011 report on transit governance, the Office of the Legislative Auditor says 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. With nearly all power for metro affairs in the hands of state officials, local elected officials are left with no incentive to think and act regionally.”

By its actions, the council has lost credibility among local elected officials and regional stakeholders. The council needs reform, and the people of the Twin Cities have a right to govern their own communities. The current structure of the council creates a culture of conflict between the need for regional planning and the rightful interests of local government.

The Twin Cities Local Government Coalition, a consortium of city and county leaders from Anoka, Carver, Dakota and Scott counties, is pressing the Legislature for Met Council reform and reorganization. In the words of Gary Shelton, Scott County administrator, its thrust “is not trying to get the Met Council dissolved,” but rather represented by local elected officials instead of “a single group of people appointed by the governor and accountable just to the governor.”

The Prior Lake City Council has signed on to this effort, as have Shakopee, Jordan and New Prague. The Scott County Association for Leadership and Efficiency (SCALE), including Savage and other cities, are in support of local elected officials serving on the council.

But reform should go even further. The council should be returned to its original role as a planning body and its operating functions restored to separate agencies. A reformed and reconstituted Met Council should revisit and revise the assumptions and direction of its 2040 plan and allow communities to determine if they want to accept future growth and development and not force it upon them by taking legal action or imposing fines.

Will it happen? Legislation is pending, but it needs strong public support and a veto-proof majority. It’s an election year, and legislators are listening.

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John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and 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.)