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Nearly 2 years later, Wisconsin DNR and tech college board holdouts resign

Resignations by the Republican-appointed state board members, whose terms expired last year, come after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ reelection.

Wisconsin Technical College System board members, from left, Becky Levzow, Kelly Tourdot and Mary Williams, a former Republican state legislator. Their terms ended in May of 2021, but the trio had refused to resign.

By Christina Lieffring, THE BADGER PROJECT

Approximately 20 months after their terms ended, three members of the Wisconsin Technical College System board resigned before the new year, days before Gov. Tony Evers was sworn in for a second term.

The Badger Project obtained the resignation letters of Becky Levzow, Kelly Tourdot and Mary Williams from the tech college system. The three women submitted the letters last week stating they would leave their positions before Jan. 1. Their profiles have been removed from the Wisconsin Technical College System website.

The trio were appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker and joined the board in 2015. Despite their terms expiring in May 2021, all three had refused to step down.

Their announcement comes after Fred Prehn, a Walker-appointed member of the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) board whose term also ended in May 2021, announced on Dec. 23 that he would step down. Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit to remove Prehn from his position, but the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last June that Prehn could not be removed without cause. 

A Republican governor would have been able to appoint like-minded replacements for the holdouts’ board seats, but the reelection of Evers ensures Republicans won’t be able to approve their preferred candidates.

Ed Miller, a UW-Stevens Point political science professor emeritus, told The Badger Project in an email he was not surprised Prehn resigned after Evers was reelected.

“(State board) holdovers for more than four years find that service is getting a little long,” Miller wrote. “Given that serving on a board is a volunteer position, individuals, even when they could continue, find it is time to leave.”

Miller also pointed out that DNR board members have more influence on policy than members of the technical college board, “where the decisions are really made by the staff.” 

“Often donors are awarded the positions (on the technical college board), which are more honorific than influential,” Miller wrote.

Prehn had been the decisive swing vote in favor of Republicans on the DNR board.

Reached by phone, Williams, a former Republican state legislator, declined to comment. Levzow, a dairy farmer from Rio, also declined to answer questions, saying she was going out to milk her cows, but added “I am done with the position and I totally enjoyed it and I believe in education.” The Badger Project left a phone message with Tourdot, a construction trade association executive from Waunakee, but did not receive a callback.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMathieu (R-Oostburg) announced in January 2022 that the state Senate would not hold hearings for the rest of the year on any of Evers’ 180 unconfirmed appointees, including five cabinet secretaries. A sixth unconfirmed cabinet secretary, Karen Timberlake from the Department of Health and Human Services stepped down at the end of Evers’ first term.

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

In a November press conference, LeMahieu said he was willing to refer appointments to Senate Committees, which does not guarantee they will be brought before the Senate for a full vote.

Allowing the past appointee to go beyond the term is unconstitutional by violating the Constitution’s allocation of powers and a violation of the statute that created the term, Miller wrote in an email to The Badger Project in September.

“The court majority is just making up the decision to adhere to their partisanship,” Miller wrote. “Reflects badly on the court.”

In her majority opinion for the court’s right-leaning bloc, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette Ziegler wrote that Prehn could stay past the end of his term until his successor is confirmed by the state Senate.

“This conclusion complies with the plain language of the Wisconsin Statutes and does not raise constitutional concerns,” she wrote.

The court’s 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 Senate doesn’t confirm a successor nominated by the governor,” Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote in her dissent.

“It’s kind of a sad commentary on the way that politics is going these days,” Joseph Heim, a UW-La Crosse political science professor emeritus, told The Badger Project in September. “It seems to me it’s a groundbreaking tactic that just adds to the overall turmoil in the government in Wisconsin.”

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

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