On March 2, the Star Tribune reported on the transfer of the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) from the Minnesota Historical Society to the Department of Administration (“Audit backs change of oversight”). As an architectural historian who has worked closely with the Preservation Office for many years, I watched this action unfold with considerable dismay, because it was extreme and unwarranted.
SHPOs were established in each state as a result of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. They are charged with the administration and implementation of federal programs and regulations that pertain to historic preservation. One of their responsibilities is to participate in consultations that involve federal undertakings to ensure that any negative impact to historic properties is avoided. Federal undertakings include funding, licensing or permitting,
It was this federal consultation process that brought scrutiny to the Historic Preservation Office and led Gov. Mark Dayton to request the introduction of a bill to transfer the office. But at the time it was completely unclear what had prompted Dayton to do so. I attended the House hearing on the bill and was astonished at the lack of transparency. An attorney representing unnamed corporate interests spoke of delays alleged to have been caused by the Preservation Office and a lack of accountability on its part. The testimony was so opaque that at one point state Rep. Cheryl Youakim stated she could not vote for a bill if it wasn’t clear what it was about.
The Senate hearing on the bill had similar tone, particularly when it later became known that the primary issue that raised Dayton’s ire was the federal consultation process on the PolyMet mine project. Yet PolyMet wasn’t mentioned in either hearing.
Stephen Elliott, the director and CEO of the Historical Society, spoke at both hearings in opposition to the move. He spoke of the Preservation Office’s effective operations within the Historical Society for nearly 50 years, of the few complaints and of the tens of thousands of consultations that have been completed without issue. He also expressed his willingness to discuss improvement opportunities.
It was noteworthy that the bill was not submitted to either the House or the Senate for a vote. It became law when it was attached to the 2017 Omnibus State Government Finance Law. So much for democracy in action.
This legislation also required the Office of the Legislative Auditor to conduct an investigation of the Preservation Office. Of course, it would have been more logical to conduct the investigation before the decision was made to move the office. Ironically, the two cases cited in the study hardly made for a compelling argument for the move. When describing the PolyMet mine project, the auditor concluded it could not be determined which side was “right.” In the second case, the Preservation Office was accused of preparing a letter that was “aggressive” in tone.
The legislative auditor’s report was also disappointingly one-sided. Critics of the Preservation Office were quoted liberally, while the comments from a number of us who opposed the move were not specifically mentioned.
Dayton needs to be reminded that the Preservation Office is responsible for the implementation of federal regulations. Each state cannot decide independently how and if these regulations should be administered. The integrity of these processes should not be compromised by politics. In addition, the Historical Society still retains historic preservation responsibilities, and I and many of my colleagues, including historians and architects, will need to continue to work with both entities. The current synergy and efficiency of having all functions, staff and resources in one location will be lost. I also understand that both the Historical Society and the Preservation Office will need to hire additional staff to fulfill their respective responsibilities. So much for cost-effectiveness.
Dayton’s refusal to accept Elliott’s offer to work cooperatively to explore improvement opportunities is disparaging to both the Minnesota Historical Society and its service to the people of Minnesota since 1849 and to the hardworking staff of the Preservation Office. The timing of this drastic action also seems particularly inopportune because of recent disclosures of serious issues within several state departments. We can only hope that more reasonable minds prevail in the future and that the Preservation Office will eventually return to the Minnesota Historical Society. The question that will be raised at that time is why it was moved in the first place.
Rolf T. Anderson, of Minneapolis, is an architectural historian.