Elections Commission delays administrator vote until March

Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

The Elections Commission Wednesday voted to put off until March a decision on whether to appoint a new interim administrator and begin a national search for a permanent one.

The move comes after the commission last week decided to keep Mike Haas in the job at least temporarily over the objections of Senate Republicans,.

Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald knocked the move and urged the commission to reconsider and install a new administrator before March 9, when the Legislature could step in and try to appoint someone.

GOP appointee Dean Knudson, a former Republican lawmaker who made the motion, told fellow commissioners they should not wait to begin the process of finding a new administrator. Failing to act, he warned, could lead to lawmakers taking over that responsibility. What’s more, he argued leaving Haas in the position despite the Senate rejecting his appointment leaves any decision he makes vulnerable to a legal challenge.

“I don’t understand why we’d want to delay on getting going on what I view to be inevitable,” Knudson said.

But Chair Mark Thomsen urged the commission to stick with last week’s decision to keep Haas in the position at least through April 30. He said that would get the state through the spring elections and give state senators the opportunity to talk with commissioners about their intentions.

He also questioned who would be willing to apply for the job after the Senate rejected Haas’ appointment despite the commissioners’ belief that he’s performed well in the role. He suggested some would be scared off by the fear Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, or another senator would be unhappy about an election result and decide the administrator had to go.

What’s more, he said some are now pushing the belief that anyone who worked at the old GAB should not be allowed to work for the Elections of Ethics commissions.

“If that’s the official position of the party in power today, we have a really serious concern,” Thomsen said. “We have a lot of folks who are hard working in our agency that need to know if you do your job well, you’re safe in your job and you’re not just subject to a hatchet job.”

Wednesday’s 4-2 vote was the latest twist since the Senate last week rejected the confirmations of Haas and Brian Bell as Ethics Commission administrator. The Department of Administration, relying on advice from the Department of Justice, says it does not recognize Haas’ re-appointment.

Knudson and fellow GOP appointee Jodi Jensen voted against tabling the motion. All three Dem members and the GOP clerk appointed to the commission supported putting it off.

Knudson’s motion sought to start the process now to find a new interim administrator with a timeline that includes advertising the post for 60 days and interviewing applicants within 90 days. In the meantime, Knudson called for Deputy Administrator Meagan Wolfe to serve as the interim for no more than six months. In addition, the motion calls for the commission to inform the Senate of the process.

The commission will now take up Knudon’s motion at a special meeting March 2, which is a week before the Legislature could step in to appoint someone to the post. The spring primary is Feb. 20 and the general election is April 3.

Under state law, the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization has the power to fill the job if it’s vacant for 45 days. That window would close March 9, though some members of the Ethics Commission dispute the view the position is currently vacant and Haas’ re-appointment is illegitimate.

Fitzgerald said he’ll reach out to the JCLO co-chairs — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton — as well as Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling to discuss the issue.

“I am concerned that today’s decision to delay hiring an administrator will force the Legislature to act, as is required by state law,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

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