By T.W. Budig ECM Capitol Reporter
Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh cites affordable housing, transit and a council that listens to communities as key priorities.
"I love how the council brings local government together," said Haigh, appointed council chairwoman by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in December of 2010.
"I think that’s really where a lot of action happens," she said.
Haigh is president and CEO of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, a former Ramsey County commissioner, an attorney whose first job out of law school was working for the Met Council.
She views her work history – her "super-unique perspective" – as great preparation for working on affordable housing and transportation as chair of the 17-member council.
Times are favorable for advancing affordable housing, she explained.
"I think there’s a lot of willingness there (among cities) compared to what it was 10 years ago, or 20 years ago," she said of creating more affordable housing.
In part, that’s because cities have seen that affordable housing can be a good investment.
But there’s more.
"During the housing crisis, a lot of people experienced housing instability – a lot of people lost their homes, a lot of people had to go and live with a family member," Haigh said.
"So the need for housing is pretty real and personal to a lot of local communities," she said.
The council is currently re-examining its affordable housing policies, seeking guidelines that take into account the changing housing market and regional demographics.
"I don’t think it (affordable housing) was as high of a priority with the previous (Pawlenty administration) council as it is for this council," Haigh said.
Looking at transportation, Haigh explained that every time Met Council officials discuss transit with the public they hear the same message: more.
Speaking of the proposed Southwest Light Rail Line – a 15-mile line envisioned as serving the cities of Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Edina, Hopkins, St. Louis Park and elsewhere – the council’s recent decision to restart the request for proposals for preliminary engineering on the line was to ensure confidence, Haigh explained.
The engineering firm URS Corporation had been a top pick, but the firm also designed the Sabo Pedestrian Bridge in Minneapolis on which cable plate recently fractured causing two bridge cables to fall.
What they learned from their legal counsel’s analysis of the incident, explained Haigh, was that the question of culpability was unclear.
"It’s cloudy," Haigh said.
"We don’t know exactly how that will end up," she said.
But they do know that in designing a new light rail project with many bridges and two tunnels, they want to create a process in which operators and the public "have absolute confidence that their safety is a top priority," Haigh said.
"That’s really what we did here," she said.
Engineering for the line will now receive additional scrutiny, she explained.
Although Dayton was unsuccessful in his attempt to gain bonding dollars for Southwest Light Rail last legislative session, in general funding for the project is solid, Haigh said.
"Actually, there’s a lot of stability," she said.
Although one past Met Council chairman said there’s always "friction" between the Met Council and counties and cities, Haigh views the council as having good working relationships with its local partners.
"To be really honest, I’ve been here a year and half and I can’t think of a single instance where we had conflict with the local communities about an issue," Haigh said.
The council creates long-range strategic plans – looks 30 years ahead – but local communities create their own comprehensive plans within the larger vision for the region, she explained.
One ongoing question is whether the seven-county Metro area, the bailiwick of the Met Council, should be expanded to include more counties.
Some have argued this makes economic sense.
But Haigh isn’t receptive to adding more counties.
"I think at the time the council was created, the seven-county region was a big step forward to bring together a big area to work together as a region – it’s still a really big area," she said.
The "collar counties" surrounding the metro have similar needs as the metro, but not always, she explained.
"I think we need to understand what those issues are; we need to be in communications and work with those counties," Haigh said,
But when considering all of the Met Council’s roles – providing water, sewer, transportation, housing – "it makes sense to me that we stay within the bounds of the seven-county area to do that," she said.
As for changing the current process of governors appointing council members, Haigh indicated she does not favor a change.
An elected council would be more accountable to the voters, some have suggested. "There is accountability," Haigh said. "That has to do with the governor. The governor does have to get elected every four years," she said.
State law provides Met Council members with independence, but council members are aware how they got there, Haigh indicated.
"I’m very mindful that I’m appointed by the governor, as are the all the rest of the members of the council," she said. So they want to make sure their vision aligns with the governor’s, she said.
The Met Council exists to address issues that cannot be addressed within the confines of local government, Haigh said. "All of us together can do better than one community alone," she said.
The Dayton Administration received 250 applications for service on the Met Council.