Judge dismisses lawsuit seeking removal of DNR chairman

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge on Friday rejected a lawsuit seeking to remove the state Department of Natural Resources policy board’s leader from his post even though his term has ended.

Dane County Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn ruled against Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul in the lawsuit he brought seeking to force Fred Prehn to leave the board. Kaul said he would appeal.

Prehn, a Wausau dentist, was appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2015. Although his term ended May 1, he has refused to step down, denying Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ appointee Sandra Naas a seat and maintaining a 4-3 majority for Republican appointees.

Prehn argued that a 1964 state Supreme Court ruling means he does not have to leave until Naas is confirmed by the Senate, but Republicans who control the chamber have made no move to set a confirmation hearing or answer questions about whether they plan to do so.

Citing the state Supreme Court precedent, the judge granted Prehn’s request to dismiss the case, though she said she is not “condoning Prehn’s actions,” the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

“The Court cannot help but feel that the citizens of Wisconsin are the losers when the legislature fails to hold confirmation and other hearings in a timely manner,” Bailey-Rihn wrote. “A timely confirmation hearing would have eliminated the need for the State’s filing and saved the taxpayers attorneys’ fees incurred in this matter.”

More than 150 people appointed by Gov. Tony Evers are still awaiting Senate approval, and more than two-thirds of them have been waiting more than 100 days. Several have been waiting for nearly three years.

Prehn told the State Journal that he was pleased with the judge’s order and encouraged lawmakers to “get on with the confirmation process.”

“That’s their end of the stick,” Prehn said. “They need to do that, or the governor maybe needs to try another nominee.”

In the meantime, Prehn said he intends to remain on the board and said he hopes the department’s staff will engage with the “lawfully appointed board.”

Prehn canceled the September meeting after a top DNR official told him no one from the agency would participate.

Environmental and conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, Midwest Environmental Advocates and the River Alliance of Wisconsin, asked Kaul last month to take legal action to force Prehn out. They fear his presence on the board prolongs conservatives’ control of the DNR, leading to more decisions that favor businesses and farms rather than the environment and wildlife.

Democrats’ frustrations with Prehn’s refusal to step down came to a head last month when the board voted 5-2 to set the quota for this fall’s wolf hunt at 300 animals. DNR biologists recommended setting the limit at 130 wolves, saying the impact of a February hunt on the wolf population isn’t yet clear.