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Editorial: Kaul vs. Prehn is a battle financed by the taxpayers

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If any normal person took a massive stack of $100 bills, poured gas on it and set it on fire, we would all think they were, well, insane. When our Legislature does it, we just shake our heads a bit and say: “Oh well, that’s Madison for you.”

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced Aug. 17 that the state Department of Justice will sue to remove Frederick Prehn from the Department of Natural Resources Board. Prehn’s term expired May 1 but he says he is not stepping down and that state rules don’t require him to do so.

Not to worry, said Prehn’s Republican friends. The Legislature has hired lawyers to intervene on the behalf of Prehn, a dentist from Wausau and cranberry farmer — at a cost of $500 an hour (based on past similar interventions). Don’t think the lawmakers are digging into their own wallets to show their support. This legal assistance will be billed to us, the taxpayers.

That will be on top of Prehn’s own legal expenses. According to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, attorney Mark Maciolek of the Madison-based firm Murphy Desmond filed a notice in Dane County Circuit Court on Aug. 19 stating he is representing Prehn.

The newspaper reported that typically board members are represented by the Department of Justice when suits are brought against Natural Resources Board members. But in this case, Prehn can have a private attorney because Kaul is the one bringing the lawsuit against him. Maciolek told the Journal Sentinel that he is being paid by the Department of Administration.

Why is this happening in the first place?

Prehn contends that according to a 1964 state Supreme Court ruling, the expiration of his term does not mean there is a vacancy on the Department of Natural Resources Board and he can continue serving if he so desires. Therefore, Gov. Tony Evers’ selection for a replacement is not necessary. But in a political shell game worthy of a Manhattan street corner, Prehn’s actions are not typically what occurs at the change of an administration.

And Kaul, who like the governor is a Democrat, contends state law has changed since the 1964 ruling.

Clear away the legal semantics and what this boils down to is a game of political one-upmanship.

As you may recall, as quickly as Evers was elected in 2018, GOP leaders called a lame-duck session to surgically remove as much of his power as they could. Continuing that tradition, the GOP majority has taken every opportunity to keep Evers from accomplishing much of anything, including confirming some appointees — even cabinet secretaries.

No one can make the GOP-controlled Senate approve the appointment of Sandra Dee Naas, a scientist who owns an environmental consulting firm and serves as an agriculture and natural resources instructor and FFA adviser at Ashland High School, to the six-year term to replace Prehn on the Natural Resources Board.

And that brings us to this ridiculous situation. AG Kaul believes he is acting in the best interest of the citizens of Wisconsin who elected Tony Evers to lead the state. He recognizes that it would take nothing less than a judicial ruling to pry Prehn from his board seat, which he continues to occupy in absolute defiance of common sense and decorum.

Even if Prehn decides to step aside — and we encourage him to do so promptly, there is still no guarantee the Senate will approve the appointment of Naas.

In the meantime, we taxpayers get to sit on the sidelines and await the legal costs for a battle that is unwarranted.


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