The Twin Cities’ regional government — the Metropolitan Council — touches almost every aspect of our daily lives. It dictates the density of our cities; taxes us; owns and operates the sewer and transit systems; and picks municipal winners and losers on development. Going forward, it plans to distribute people in a government-approved mix of race and income throughout the metro area.
Yet remarkably, this powerful body — which can dictate to and even overrule our local elected officials — is composed of 17 unelected people appointed by, and answerable only to, the governor.
No wonder Minnesota’s Legislative Auditor has declared that the council lacks “accountability,” “transparency” and “credibility.”
A bipartisan movement to reform the Met Council is currently underway at the Minnesota Legislature. Fortunately, a new report lays out vital facts — so far missing from the debate — to guide much-needed reform. (Access the report at katanacommunity.com or at americanexperiment.org.)
The report, by business consultant Kevin Terrell of Minneapolis, compares the Met Council to dozens of other regional governments — from Seattle to Denver and Atlanta — in terms of both its democratic accountability and the scope of its powers. The council is a radical outlier in both respects.
For example, says the report, nearly all other large metro regions are governed by a “Council of Governments” (COG), composed predominantly of local elected officials accountable to the voters. Yet none of these COGs has the breathtaking power of the Met Council.
Consider this: The unelected Met Council can levy and increase taxes without voter approval. In fact, its current $80 million property tax levy supports more spending than the entire budget of 15 of the largest regional authorities, according to the report.
By comparison, the handful of other regional governments that can tax got that power directly from the voters, and cannot raise taxes without voter approval.
Can we excuse the Met Council’s lack of democratic legitimacy by pointing to its success in bringing prosperity to our region? The fact is, the Twin Cities metro lags peer regions like Seattle, Portland and Denver on population growth, job growth and transit ridership, according to the report.
The council’s new 25-year Transportation Policy Plan illustrates the problems its lack of accountability causes. The plan is wholly out of touch with the metro region’s actual needs regarding congestion relief, traffic safety and new roads. That’s because it is driven by an ideology — “transit-oriented development” — that is hostile to cars and roads. No wonder the commissioners of the metro area’s five ring counties have declared the plan guarantees “a bleak future for the regional highway system.”
Terrell’s report concludes by laying out alternatives for enhancing the Met Council’s accountability and credibility, and reining in its powers.
Though the report makes no specific recommendations, one of the best reform options may be to have each of the region’s seven county boards choose a member to appoint to the council. The other 10 members could be city council members chosen by city councils in 10 new regional districts. All would serve at the will of the bodies that appointed them.
Most importantly, the Legislature should restrict the Met Council’s sprawling mission — perhaps using the break-up of ATT into “Baby Bells” as a model. A new state agency could coordinate regional planning. City and county housing authorities could handle affordable housing, while separate bodies could own and operate the transit system to eliminate conflicts of interest.
Given current political realities, change this extensive is likely not possible. But one thing is clear: Reform is urgently overdue.
Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. Contact her at email@example.com .