Government layers: Understanding Twin Cities government, from the outside to the inside

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Twin Cities Government Layers, Twin Cities Agenda
Photo courtesy of lakesnwoods.com

Government in Minnesota, especially in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, has multiple layers that can produce watery-eyed confusion unless you know how to target the right person or office when things go wrong or when you have a suggestion for improvement.

From elected officials to appointed commissioners, the question of whose jurisdiction a particular issue falls within is often not as clear as you might expect.

When elected or appointed officials are doing their jobs right, most people will never notice they’re even there. However, when YOU need to contact an official either about a problem, a question, or maybe an idea you want to see put in place, which layer should you cut open?

And, how can you avoid getting the same response, “That’s not our department.” So, here’s a few quick tips on better navigating the layers of government and common issues to avoid frustration.

Minnesota State Government

Elected Officials

State government is made up of a lot of pieces within the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The branch closest to the people is the legislative branch, made up of the House and Senate chambers. Each State Senate district has a little over 79,000 people in it. And, each of these Senate districts is divided into 2 State House districts.

  • State House members must run for reelection every 2 years, in even-numbered years.
  • State Senate has 67 members, elected every 4 years from districts across the state of Minnesota.

State legislators work on a diverse array of issues, from funding for schools to approving the appointments of our Governor. Common issues you might contact your state representative about include state parks, concerns with any state laws or contracts, or funding for educational institutions from pre-K to any of the many state universities. Some of the more controversial issues that state legislators work on include human rights, abortion, or recreational drugs.

Appointed Officials

There are also unelected officials and boards that carry out many of the functions of government specific to the Twin Cities area. Two of the largest of these appointed commissions are the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and the Metropolitan Council (Met Council).

The Governor of Minnesota is primarily responsible for appointing members to both of these commissions and those appointees are subject to approval by the State Senate.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) is a 15-member board that includes 13 Governor appointees and 1 Appointee each by the Mayors of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. The Commission manages the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as well as six regional airports.

The 17-member Metropolitan Council, is entirely appointed by the Governor, and oversees all regional planning for the Twin Cities area. One of the most public, and perhaps the largest role, is the administration of Metro Transit, our region’s bus and rail system.

County Government

In the 7-county metro area, Hennepin and Ramsey counties are the largest, but all the regions’ counties operate in a similar matter. Each has an elected Board of commissioners that represents different districts in its respective county.

Each Commissioner serves a four-year term that is staggered to avoid the entire Board’s election at the same time. While issues do differ from county to county, there are many common concerns that these elected officials work on including county roads, county court issues, and human service areas.

Each county also has an elected Sheriff and County Prosecutor that deal with issues of law enforcement and legal proceedings within their jurisdictions.  

Municipal Government

The institutions in Minnesota closest to the day-to-day life of residents are the many municipal governments that make up the Twin Cities region.

Most cities in our area have councils and mayors that serve either two- or four-year terms. The vast majority of these elected positions are considered part-time and pay very little money. They usually meet weekly or monthly, depending on the municipality and have citizen-appointed committees that work with council members on different issues.

The most common areas of concern for municipalities include land development, city works (waste disposal, street lights, or sewers), city streets, and zoning issues.  

Another big concern on the municipal level is parks, which is overseen by local park and recreation departments. The leaders of the park and recreation departments are usually appointment by the Mayor and/or Council, with the exception of Minneapolis where the Park Board is elected.

School Districts

With nearly 50 school districts in the 7-county metropolitan area, each has an elected board that supervises all school activities.

While some districts are comprised of just one city, for example St. Paul, others consist of several combined municipalities like the St. Anthony-New Brighton School District. School districts are very focused in the concerns of local schools and education and the particular school board is your first point of contact.

Why so many layers?

There are in fact even more layers and as you slice into them, the relationship becomes clearer. Government may appear larger than necessary depending on your perspective.

Most of the layers have developed out of concern for responsiveness and responsibility to the citizens they represent and act on behalf of. All hold regular meetings that are open to the public and encourage public input and participation.

If you are interested in diving in, it pays to start local and think global — much like the food movement. As the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone said, “We can and must move U.S. politics forward by means of committed participation.”

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