Judge: Wisconsin Natural Resources Board Remainders Subject to Open Records Act | local government
A Wisconsin judge has ruled that an embattled member of the state’s Natural Resources Council is a public servant and that communications about his refusal to relinquish his seat are subject to public records law.
Former NRB Chairman Fred Prehn has sought to dismiss a lawsuit brought against him and the Department of Natural Resources by Midwest Environmental Advocates, which accused him of violating the state’s Open Archives Act withholding text messages.
Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell declined to dismiss the case, ruling that Prehn is in fact a government authority and that his communications are subject to public records law.
In an order released Tuesday, Mitchell wrote that Prehn’s tenure on the board “has to do with state resource policy decisions, decision-making, and the governor’s ability to appoint new members.” to the NRB”.
Mitchell went on to note that the documents sought were not purely personal, as Prehn argued, “because they clearly relate to NRB business.”
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Mitchell’s decision stopped short of ordering Prehn to hand over the texts, which MEA lawyers now hope will go through the discovery process in court. But the group hailed the decision as a victory for transparency and accountability.
“Dr. Prehn is accountable to law, like any other public official,” MEA attorney Adam Voskuil said. his decision to suspend the expiry of his mandate.”
Prehn’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision.
A Wausau dentist appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2015, Prehn has refused to step down since his term expired on May 1, denying Gov. Tony Evers’ appointee Sandra Naas a seat.
Prehn argues he can continue to serve until the Senate confirms Naas, but the Republican-led Senate has done nothing to do so, guaranteeing Walker appointees majority control of the board.
He was replaced in January as chairman but remained on the board, where he voted last month to reject regulations on toxic PFAS compounds in groundwater and to weaken proposed drinking water standards. the agency for so-called “eternal chemicals”.
Not just PFAS: DNR board vote ends years of work on two dozen other groundwater contaminants
Later this week, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments in a separate case brought by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul seeking to overthrow him.
According to MEA’s complaint, the environmental group requested all communications — including emails, texts and other written messages — that Prehn sent and received between January 1 and June 29.
The DNR released dozens of emails — mostly from citizens demanding Prehn’s resignation — but no text messages.
In response to a second request, the DNR produced a series of text messages between Prehn and another board member in which he wrote, “I have to decide if I’m going to stay until the next appointee be confirmed. Evers informed me that he was not going to rename me, I guess he thinks there are some pretty big agenda items that I might disagree with LOL.
MEA argues that this indicates the existence of additional text messages relevant to the request and by withholding them, Prehn not only violated the law, but “did great harm to Wisconsin’s tradition of limiting the influence of politics in natural resources and conservation decision-making”.
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