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‘Characteristic of sham democracies’: DNR board member refuses to step down after term. Others might follow.

With Supreme Court approval, more DNR board members might stay on past their terms, which could keep it under Republican control.

Fred Prehn at a Natural Resources Board meeting on Aug. 11, 2021.

By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT

After the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a Republican-appointed member of the state’s Natural Resources Board, Fred Prehn, can remain even though his term has expired, two other board members won’t say what they will do when their terms expire next year.

Prehn, a dentist and gun store owner in Wausau, is the fourth and decisive right-leaning vote on the 7-member board. Remaining on the board after his appointment, which ended officially in May of 2021, allows Republicans to keep control of the body and make decisions on environmental issues such as wolf hunt quotas and regulation of pollutants.

The ruling is the latest twist in Wisconsin’s ongoing political struggle between a Republican-majority state legislature, a right-leaning state Supreme Court and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The precedent of not respecting expiring terms has many concerned.

“I hope the remaining three board members whose terms end in 2023 don’t follow (Prehn’s) example,” said Paul Heinen, a spokesman for Wisconsin’s Green Fire, a conservation group that has called for Prehn to step down.

Those board members, all appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, are Greg Kazmierski, Bill Bruins and Terry Hilgenberg.

Greg Kazmierski at a Natural Resources Board meeting on Aug. 11, 2021.

Reached by phone, Kazmierski said he hoped to be reappointed, but was noncommittal when asked if he would step down if his term ends without a reappointment, a likely situation if Evers is reelected this year.

“I’m not going to say one way or the other,” he said. “I’ll look at the circumstances at the time.”

Also reached by phone, Bruins would not commit to stepping down when his term ends either.

“That’s a hypothetical and I’m not ready to answer that,” Bruins said. “My best answer is if you want something changed, it should be changed at the legislative level. That’s how I really feel about that.”

Hilgenberg did not respond to several messages.

“In my 40 years plus of following Wisconsin politics, I cannot remember a similar situation,” John Witte, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin wrote in an email. “I see absolutely no democratic value in such actions. The heart of a democracy is peaceful, lawful replacement of leaders when votes go against them. Refusal to give way to the majority of electors is characteristic of sham democracies.”

In an email, Prehn said it was lawful for him to remain past the expiration of his term.

“For purely political reasons, Attorney General (Josh Kaul) and (Evers) decided to pursue this action against me,” he wrote. “What many don’t seem to understand is that this process requires a nomination from the governor and a confirmation by the (state) Senate. This is true for many, but not all appointments by the governor. He knows this, and still refused to nominate someone who could get approved by the (state) Senate.”

Evers has attempted to place his choice for Prehn’s successor, Sandra Dee Naas, on the board. But the Republican-controlled state Senate has refused to confirm many of Evers’ appointments, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said in January they would not confirm anymore for the rest of 2022.

Emails show Prehn corresponded with LeMahieu about staying on the board past his term, according to a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Regardless of what happens in the state Senate, Prehn could step down, but the state Supreme Court decision severely restricts the governor’s ability to force him out, despite the expiration of Prehn’s term.

“Until his successor is nominated by the governor and confirmed by the (state) Senate… Prehn may be removed by the governor only for cause,” Chief Justice Annette Ziegler wrote in her majority opinion. “This conclusion complies with the plain language of the Wisconsin Statutes and does not raise constitutional concerns.”

Bill Bruins at a Natural Resources Board meeting on Aug. 11, 2021.

Democrats are unlikely to win back the state Senate, which Republicans have controlled since 2011, anytime soon, experts say. Earlier this year, the right-leaning majority on the state Supreme Court allowed Republicans to draw and implement political district maps that skew heavily in their favor.

The state Supreme Court decision on Prehn, issued last week, also followed the same ideological lines. The four right-leaning justices voted to allow him to remain. The three left-leaning justices disagreed.

“The majority’s absurd holding allows Prehn’s six-year term on the Board of Natural Resources  — which expired over a year ago — to last for as long as Prehn wants it to, so long as he refuses to leave and the (state) Senate doesn’t confirm a successor nominated by the governor,” Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote in her dissent.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources and exercises authority and responsibility in accordance with state laws, according to its website.

Prehn noted in his email that he is not the only Walker appointee to refuse to vacate a seat at term’s end.

Three Republican-appointed members of the 13-seat Wisconsin Technical College Board — Becky Levzow, Kelly Tourdot and Mary Williams — have also refused to leave their positions despite their terms ending last year.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

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