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Is it my imagination or does the state Capitol just keep getting stranger?
Consider the behavior of Republican Senate Majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, who has called for the Senate to remove Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Michael Haas from his job. This is bizarre on many levels.
Fitzgerald, after all, was among the Republican leaders who scrapped the state Government Accountability Board, whose board members were retired judges, at least half of which had Republican backgrounds, but which Fitzgerald and other GOP legislators accused of running an anti-Republican agency.
So it was goodbye GAB and hello to a new state Elections Commission and Ethics Commission, each with an even number of Republican and Democratic appointees on their boards. Somehow they would have to agree on policies to follow, and from all accounts the Elections Commission board did this quite well.
Julie M. Glancey, an appointee of Gov. Scott Walker to the commission, says the board members have worked very well together. “There has been very little political posturing,” she says, and nearly every vote taken has been unanimous. Glancey speaks highly of board chairman Mark Thomsen, a Democratic appointee she says is “doing a good job.”
One of the first decisions the board made was to hire an administrator, and they unanimously chose Haas, who has served since July 2016. Glancey say she has “no idea” what political views Haas holds. “Nor anyone else on the staff there. They don’t bring politics into any communication or the work they do.”
Glancey is a retired county clerk in Sheboygan who handled local elections for 28 years, and says she has never heard a complaint about Haas from any elections clerks in the state for his work with the Elections Commission or his previous eight years with the GAB. “Mike is truly a professional. He is well-respected not just by the elections clerks in the state but among elections professionals nationally.” (Haas serves on the board of the National Association of State Elections Directors.)
But Fitzgerald and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have insisted that Haas and Ethics Commission administrator Brian Bell should be sacked, in response to the vague accusations against many people contained in the sloppy, error-filled report on the John Doe investigation by District Attorney Brad Schimel.
In fact, neither Haas nor Bell were among the nine people Schimel recklessly (without specifying the evidence) suggested should be investigated for contempt of court. Yet Vos and Fitzgerald said they had concerns that Haas and Bell might be “partisan” and not “impartial” administrators.
Haas sent a letter to Vos and Fitzgerald demanding an apology for “trashing my name and reputation,” insisting their statements implying he had been involved in criminal activity are “verifiably false” and declaring the lawmakers offered not “the least bit of evidence to support those claims,” as Wis Politics reported.
The response from Fitzgerald and Vos? Nothing.
Fitzgerald has called on the State Senate to vote to fire Haas and Bell from their jobs. In response the board members of the Elections Commission — three Republicans and three Democrats — unanimously voted in favor of a resolution proposed by GOP appointee Dean Knudson asking Fitzgerald and the Senate to hold a public hearing on whether Haas should be fired.
The response from Fitzgerald? Nothing.
Thomsen later called Fitzgerald a “coward” and a “bully” for his refusal to hold a public hearing and provide evidence of any wrong doing by Haas.
The response from Fitzgerald? Nothing. His spokesman Dan Romportl merely reiterated that the Senate will vote Jan. 23 on removing Haas and Bell.
Fitzgerald isn’t just attacking Haas, but the six board members of the election commission who hired Haas and unanimously voted a month ago to retain him, Thomsen says. “The Republicans created this entity and the six commissioners have been doing the job they were asked to,” Thomsen notes. “And Mr. Fitzgerald has no confidence in the job we are doing.”
And the law, adds the longtime attorney, specifically delegates the power to appoint the Elections Commission administrator to the board, not to the Senate.
“We are an independent agency” and not under the power of the Senate, notes Milwaukee attorney and board member Ann Jacobs, another Democratic appointee.
Fitzgerald suggests the Senate, which has the power to not confirm the Elections Commission’s appointee, could simply vote against him. But Haas has held the position for 18 months with no objection from the Senate and Jacobs and Thomsen argue that amounts to approval.
“The administrator may be removed by the commission,” says Jacobs, “but there is no other mechanism under the law to remove him.”
In which case the Senate might have to go to court to demand the removal of Haas.
Thomsen hopes it doesn’t come to that: “I’m hoping some senators have the courage to stand up to Mr. Fitzgerald.”
So far, one GOP senator showed such courage. “Who’s running the place? Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon has questioned. “The bipartisan board or partisan politicians?” He told the Journal Sentinel he would understand if Commission members chose to resign.
Which would be a disaster for the state elections system. Glancey, Thomsen and Jacobs all say the sacking of Haas would make it very difficult for the Elections Commission to do its job. As it is, a state budget cut has left the commission short of staff, leaving Haas with a huge challenge he has handled well, by all accounts.
None of which seems to matter to the Senate Majority Leader. “Fitzgerald acts too much like a king and not an elected official,” Thomsen says. “I think the power has gone to his head.”
This is act of mindless vengeance by Fitzgerald, who is still mad about the long disbanded John Doe probe. As Jacobs says: “Just because you are mad about something that happened five years ago and he (Haas) didn’t do, you don’t throw out all the improvements by the commission. There’s nothing other than that Mike proofed some legal briefs. I don’t think people should be fired for this when that’s their job.”
“Mike Haas has done his job in an exceptional fashion,” Thomsen says. “It’s just wrong and morally repugnant that anyone wants to get him fired.”
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