During the same week in 2005, Dan Wolter was hired as director of the University of Minnesota’s news service and appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to serve on the Metropolitan Council.
While he said he knew there were going to be points where the two positions would cross over – or even conflict – he didn’t anticipate the extent of the disagreement between the agencies on the Central Corridor light rail line.
The disagreement hit its breaking point last Monday when the University filed a lawsuit against the Met Council alleging their final environmental impact statement on the project did not address the University’s concerns.
Among the concerns is a $200 million research investment in 80 labs set up in 17 buildings along Washington Avenue, where the light-rail line is slated to run. University officials say the Met Council’s measures to mitigate vibration and electromagnetic interference on these labs are not adequate.
The growing tensions between the organizations have created an awkward situation for Wolter, whose position as the Met Council’s vice chairman of the environment committee, its liaison to the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission and regional representative for Northern Dakota County requires him to vote on policy issues such as the Central Corridor.
Since the University is a partner on the project, it raised a “red flag” for Wolter right away.
To address his concerns over working for both agencies, Wolter met with general counsels from each organization to decide on a course of action.
That action was not to take an action, on anything, at least having to do with the Central Corridor. In fact, Wolter rarely votes on anything involving the University, he said.
“I am not at any meetings at the University where decisions are being made about the project,” Wolter said. “So really, when it comes to the Central Corridor, if there is one person who doesn’t have his finger in either side of the issue, it is me.”
Recusal, or voluntarily removing oneself from voting on a certain topic, is an action University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg often advises University employees to take.
In Wolter’s case, Rotenberg advised him to recuse himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“There are examples where you really aren’t on both sides of the table but people might think you are,” Rotenberg said. “[Wolter] doesn’t benefit one way or another on this decision, but it could look that way to others because he works for the University.”
Removing oneself from voting on a certain issue is not unusual at the Met Council.
The 17 members who make up the council are appointed, not elected, to make policy decisions about transportation, wastewater, parks and housing in the seven-county metro area.
“The Met Council is a part-time body, and all most all of its members have other occupations,” Steve Dornfeld, spokesman for the Met Council, said, adding that Wolter has consistently stepped aside when the council votes on University issues.
But Wolter’s role as the director of the University News Service is unique in that he often, for better or worse, becomes the face of University decisions, Wolter said. On the Central Corridor project, Wolter has nothing critical to say of either side.
“I understand where both parties are coming from, and they have very different responsibilities,” he said. “The Met Council has to get this done on time and on budget, and the University is a research institution that has an obligation to protect its public investment.”
In the end, Wolter said the difficulty of holding the two positions comes from time constraints, not the Central Corridor. But between the staff at the University’s news service and his iPhone, Wolter said he can handle the load. “Like anyone with multiple professional and career commitments, you figure out ways to manage it.”