Despite Southwest Light Rail controversy, Met Council survives overhaul effort
A new task force will soon look at potential changes to the Metropolitan Council, which remains under intense scrutiny for its handling of the $2.7 billion Southwest Light Rail project.
But the most powerful planning agency in Minnesota will not be completely overhauled as some state lawmakers vowed to do earlier this year.
Calls to fundamentally change how the Met Council operates started growing louder last year after the legislative auditor revealed the Southwest Light Rail project is years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is among those who authored bills that would have made the Met Council an elected body rather than having members appointed by the governor.
“I believe the only solution in a democratic elected representative system is to have elected representatives,” Dibble said last December before taking over as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
5 INVESTIGATES found last year that the Met Council ignored early warnings about the project that will extend the Green Line to Eden Prairie.
“My constituents are just appalled at the waste,” said Rep. Kristin Robbins (R-Maple Grove). “We have real infrastructure needs in western Hennepin County that are not being addressed, and we see our tax dollars getting wasted on these projects.”
The project still faces a funding gap of $272 million, according to a Met Council spokesperson.
Opposition from cities
Despite the ongoing issues with the controversial light rail project, mayors of cities resisted drastic changes to the planning agency they depend on for critical projects involving transit, water treatment, parks, and housing.
“I feel like what we have works pretty well. It could be tweaked a little bit and work even better,” Edina Mayor Jim Hovland said.
Hovland supports creating staggered terms for the 17 members of the regional planning agency so that they are not all appointed by the same governor.
The idea of staggered terms is also supported by Metro Cities, which advocates for local governments within the seven-county metropolitan area.
“We consider it good government and common sense improvement to governance of the region,” said Patricia Nauman, executive director.
But Hovland and others are against making the Met Council an elected body, a proposal which had bi-partisan support at the legislature.
“It almost feels to me like… an attempt to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Hovland said.
At a committee hearing in March, Minnetonka Mayor Brad Wiersum said, “It could end up as a fractured, paralyzed entity less able to address regional needs and problems.”
‘Most powerful unit of government’
The calls for change are familiar to Myron Orfield Jr., a former state lawmaker and professor at the University of Minnesota.
Orfield authored a bill to make the Met Council elected in 1997. The bill passed in the House and Senate before then-Governor Arne Carlson vetoed it.
“The status quo has lots of friends,” Orfield said. “It’s very hard to get the government to change or anybody to change.”
However, Orfield says he was optimistic about a different outcome this time, given the looming questions about Southwest Light Rail.
“It’s the most powerful unit of government, but for the state, and this session, it might have shown it’s more powerful than the state government, that reformers weren’t able to touch it,” Orfield said.
Dibble did not respond to follow-up requests for comment about the failure of his bill to make the Met Council elected.
The new 17-member task force created to study possible changes to the Met Council is required to make its recommendations to lawmakers by February of next year.
In an email, a spokesperson for Met Council said the agency looks forward to working with the task force.
Robbins, who joined DFL members as a co-author on a bill that would have made the Met Council elected, said she is optimistic about the ultimate compromise of creating a task force to study other potential changes to the agency.
“I do think they have far too much power, but I don’t think they can thwart the will of the people or the will of the legislature,” Robbins said. “I think we will have real change because the public is demanding it.”