SW resident takes over Met Council

Peter Bell takes the helm of agency responsible for running mass transit and guiding regional growth

All eyes are on newly appointed Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell, who takes over a state agency that became a lightning rod for criticism in last year's gubernatorial election. Bell, a Linden Hills resident, has been instructed to trim $2.6 million from the Met Council's $400 million dollar budget for fiscal 2003, with even more cuts expected to follow.

The Met Council oversees much of the region's infrastructure, including Metro Transit buses, light rail and wastewater treatment. Perhaps its most controversial role is as an arbiter of regional growth; its decisions on extending metro sewage systems in effect set metro development boundaries. Under Bell's predecessor, Ted Mondale, the Met Council also aggressively pushed for more affordable housing in the suburbs -- which drew criticism in the largely Republican areas.

The governor appoints the Met Council, and Bell, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty's appointee, has drawn widespread praise, including from some Democrats. Policy shifts aside, the new chair must be the bearer of bad budget news.

Bell, also a University of Minnesota Regent, comes to the Met Council after several years as an executive at the Hazelden Foundation, a drug treatment organization. Before that, Bell worked at TCF Bank as a community relations officer for five years.

Like Pawlenty, Bell has solid Republican credentials and served on the board of the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment.

Bell said he was aware of the challenges presented by his position, but said he was looking forward to meeting them.

"We have a chance to make headway in some of the issues that have a large impact on people's day-to-day lives," he said. "To me, that sounds like a lot of fun."

Although Bell expressed enthusiasm about his new position, his assessment of the previous Met Council administration was decidedly lukewarm.

"Met Council has done more right than wrong," he said. "But there need to be more changes."

Less adversarial According to Bell, Governor Pawlenty has advised him to take a less "prescriptive" approach with local communities when it comes to regional planning. The Council is currently involved in a protracted legal dispute with the city of Lake Elmo over plans for a high-density housing development.

"The governor thinks the Council is a legitimate organization," he said. "But, the council has to respect local communities. We also need to increase the Council's accountability."

Bell also said the Council would put "everything on the table" to accommodate the budget deficit, including mass-transit fare increases, salary cuts and layoffs.

Southwest Minneapolis State Senator Frank Hornstein (DFL-60), who served on the last Met Council, said he was "optimistic" about Bell's appointment, which he called a good choice.

"Peter is very bright," he said. "I've talked to him before and I think he understands the importance of what the Met Council does."

Although Hornstein acknowledged what some term "anti-Met Council" rhetoric in the 2002 state election, he said he is not concerned the new administration will dismantle Council functions.

"Anyone who wants to govern responsibly would see that this is a very important piece of government," he said.

Hornstein also said he was taking a "wait and see" approach to how the state's budget deficit will affect Met Council's transit policy. Hornstein said he hoped the new administration would understand the economic necessity of funding light rail and the Metro Transit system.

Former Met Council member George Garnett, a DFLer, said he was looking forward to Bell's "pragmatic" approach to leadership. Garnett said he felt confident about Bell's qualifications.

"We've got plenty of planners around here," he said. "But Peter is a good administrator, and in a time of change and scarcity that may be more important than anything."

According to Garnett, the Met Council became a target of former Governor Jesse Ventura

during the 1998 election, but Ventura became a believer after learning that the Council's planning functions can stimulate efficient economic growth. Garnett, who has reapplied

to be a council member, said he thinks the Pawlenty administration may undergo a similar change of heart.

Although Garnett said he expects transportation funding to suffer cuts along with other Met Council functions, he said the continued vitality of downtown Minneapolis will depend on efficient transportation.

"We have to solve this congestion problem," he said. "If we don't, nobody is going to want to work or live [in downtown]," he said.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who defeated Bell in a 1999 special election, said the conservative Bell struggled to connect to voters in her district, which she said has a largely liberal bent. Dorfman, a DFLer, said Bell posted campaign literature claiming that the crime rate doubled during the time she was mayor of St. Louis Park.

"It was technically true," she said. "We went from one murder to two," she said.

Elections aside, Dorfman called Bell "bright." However, she still wondered what kind of message Pawlenty might be sending with the appointment.

"This is an interesting job that he could do a lot with," she said. "But he really doesn't have any experience in any of the Met Council functions. My fear is that he was sent down here to dismantle the Met Council."