Judge: Wisconsin Natural Resources Board holdover subject to open records law | Local Government

Judge: Wisconsin Natural Resources Board holdover subject to open records law | Local Government

A Wisconsin judge says an embattled member of the state’s Natural Resources Board is a public official and communications about his refusal to relinquish his seat are subject to public records law.

Former NRB Chair Fred Prehn 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 records law by withholding text messages.

Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell declined to dismiss the case, ruling that Prehn is in fact a government authority and his communications are subject to public records law.







Everett Mitchell

Mitchell


In an order released Tuesday, Mitchell wrote that Prehn’s tenure on the board “has a relationship to state natural resource policy decisions, the decision-making process, and the Governor’s ability to appoint new members to the NRB.”

Mitchell went on to note the records sought were not purely personal, as Prehn argued, “because they clearly have some connection to the affairs of the NRB.”

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Mitchell’s ruling stopped short of ordering Prehn to turn over the texts, which MEA attorneys now hope to get through the court discovery process. But the group praised the ruling as a victory for transparency and accountability.

“Dr. Prehn is accountable to the law, just like any other public official,” MEA staff attorney Adam Voskuil said. “We are pleased that the court affirmed his obligation to comply with the law and to turn over records about his decision to hold over past the expiration of his term.”

Prehn’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

A Wausau dentist appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2015, Prehn has refused to step down since his term expired May 1, denying Gov. Tony Evers’ appointee Sandra Naas a seat.

Prehn argues he can continue serving until the Senate confirms Naas, but the Republican-led Senate has made no moves to do that, ensuring Walker appointees majority control over the board.







Fred Prehn

Prehn


He was replaced in January as chair but has remained on the board, where he voted last month to reject regulations of toxic PFAS compounds in groundwater and to weaken the agency’s proposed drinking water standards for the so-called “forever chemicals.”


Not just PFAS: DNR board vote scrapped 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 in an effort to unseat him.

According to MEA’s complaint, the environmental group requested all communications — including emails, texts and other written messages — Prehn sent and received between Jan. 1 and June 29.

The DNR released dozens of email messages — most from citizens demanding Prehn step down — but no text messages.

In response to a second request, the DNR produced a string of text messages between Prehn and another board member in which he wrote: “I’ve got to decide if I’m going to stay on until the next appointee is confirmed. Evers notified me he’s not going to reappoint me I guess he thinks there’s some pretty big agenda items that I might not agree with LOL.”

MEA contends that indicates the existence of additional text messages relevant to the request and by withholding them Prehn not only violated the law but “is doing great damage to Wisconsin’s tradition of limiting the influence of politics in natural resources and conservation decision making.”

Ferne Dekker

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