Leader says Met Council brings local government together

Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh cites affordable housing, transit and a council that listens to communities as key priorities.

Susan Haigh, Metropolitan Council chairperson.
Susan Haigh, Metropolitan Council chairperson.

“I love how the council brings local government together,” said Haigh, appointed council chairwoman by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in December 2010.

“I think that’s really where a lot of action happens.”

Haigh is president and chief executive officer of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, a former Ramsey County commissioner and 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 chairperson of the 17-member council.

Times are favorable for advancing affordable housing, Haigh said.

“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, according to Haigh.

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.”

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, she said that every time Met Council officials discuss transit with the public they hear the same message: more.

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 said.

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, according to Haigh.

“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 said 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.”

State law provides Met Council members with independence, but council members are aware how they got there, Haigh said.

“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, Haigh said.

The Met Council exists to address issues that cannot be addressed within the confines of local government, according to Haigh.

“All of us together can do better than one community alone,” Haigh said.

The Dayton Administration received 250 applications for service on the Met Council.