The new chair of the Metropolitan Council was sworn in last week, and her first week on the job was accompanied by a flurry of suggestions about how to improve the Met Council and it’s policies. Commentary by Dave Van Hattum and Jim Erkel is particularly persuasive to me, calling for focusing more growth along transit corridors and maintaining a focus on building and enhancing transitways.
Many critiques of the Council include some variation on the idea that the current composition, only individuals appointed by the Governor, is not adequate. Many think the Council would be more transparent or responsive if it’s members were elected. This seems to be a perennial issue, and was argued about even during the formation of the Council in 1967. A Minneapolis proposal suggests the a majority of the Council members should be local elected officials, like mayors, council members, and county commissioners.
Having a Met Council that is more directly accountable to voters may be a good idea. Most residents of the metro probably have little understanding of what the agency does, how it is funded, or how their lives are impacted by the transit, sewer, airport and parks systems it oversees. More open discussion open important regional issues of growth and transportation would be a good thing, especially as we approach the update of the Regional Framework, which guides the updates to local comprehensive plans for the entire region.
There are two ways “elected” individuals could serve on the Council. The first is appointing (through an undetermined process) local elected officials, like mayors, council members and county commissioners to the Council. This is what the Minneapolis and Erkel/Van Hattum proposals suggest. The second is to directly elect individuals to the Council, perhaps based on the existing districts, some other boundaries, or on an at-large basis.
I think there are some downsides to appointing local elected officials to the Council rather than sticking with appointments by the Governor or directly electing some or all members.
- Local elected officials are chosen by voters to represent their specific jurisdiction, and may care little for the regional issues. Their skills or knowledge may be perfect for local government, but not for regional decision-making.
- A council made up of local elected officials seems much more likely to engage in political horse-trading, continuously looking for reciprocity on major infrastructure projects (like transit or parks) before they would support projects in other parts of the region. The US congress may represent the epitome of this type of policy-making, with particularly unsavory consequences.
- There are seven counties and part or all of 182 cities and townships in the metro. Which of these will be represented on the Council? Will the representative of Landfall have the same voting power as a representative from Saint Paul? Will county representatives be favored over city? A whole range of thorny governance issues arises when you start thinking about how to appoint locally elected officials to the council.
If a more accountable Council is the goal, I think a more fair and less parochial solution would be to directly elect some or all of the council members. Depending on how “districts” are drawn, members would have to consider the priorities of many different jurisdictions and represent districts with a diversity of land use patterns. Ideally, all or some members should be elected at-large to avoid the issue all together.
Let’s Get Creative
While we’ve got the red pen out, we might as well make some serious changes. Why not expand the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Council beyond 7 counties? 13 counties is probably more accurate in terms of commute-shed and land use impacts.
Also, why limit members to 4-year terms? Regional infrastructure decisions are made for lifetimes, not four or eight years. Land use policies can have impacts that are even longer. The Regional Development Framework, which guides all changes to local comprehensive land use plans, is updated roughly every ten years, and all local comprehensive plans are required by statute to be updated every ten years. Why not appoint or elect Council members to 10 or 15 year terms? This would increase institutional memory, reduce the impact of campaigning on decisions made by the council and perhaps lead to wiser long-term thinking.
As a legislature with many brand new members and a new governor start their work, now may be a opportune time to rethink how we plan regionally. I know there are a few metro-area planners who read this blog, what are your thoughts on improving the Metropolitan Council?