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Months-long dispute ends as acting administrator steps down from Elections Commission

The drama at the state Elections Commission is coming to at least a partial close.

Mike Haas, who came under fire from Senate Republicans, will be easing out of his job as the top administrator at the commission.

Haas said on Feb. 27 he decided to drop his claim to the job to spare the agency from distraction during an election year.

Haas said the ongoing dispute over whether he was properly re-appointed to the role ran the risk of allowing lawmakers to step in and pick someone for the job.

"I wanted to in the end make sure the commission had an opportunity to appoint its own administrator without getting into a legal dispute and make it clear that they had that opportunity," Haas told WisPolitics.com.

Commission Chair Mark Thomsen praised Haas and said he will now support elevating the agency's assistant administrator to the top role permanently. But Commissioner Dean Knudson said he wants to put Meagan Wolfe in the role temporarily and still wants a national search before a permanent replacement is picked.

Haas's announcement that he would no longer seek the administrator's job ends a month-long dispute over his reappointment to the position even after the state Senate Jan. 23 rejected his selection and the appointment of Brian Bell as Ethics Commission administrator. The Walker administration did not view Haas's appointment to the job as valid because of the Senate vote and considered the position vacant. Under state law, the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization has the power to appoint the agency administrator if the job is open for 45 days.

Haas had earlier considered a legal challenge to the Department of Administration's determination with Thomsen arguing only the commission has the power to remove the administrator. Haas said while it's a "fairly unique legal issue" and there are strong arguments to continue in the position, there are other considerations about what's best for the commission.

"I was weighing whether it makes sense to continue in a position where it's clear that policymakers want to go in a different direction," Haas said.

Wolfe joined the old Government Accountability Board in 2011. Her responsibilities have included rebuilding MyVote.com, the state's portal for voters. She became assistant administrator in early 2017.

Wolfe said she would wait for the commission to act Friday before deciding if she'd be interested in applying, should there be a national search.

"At this point, I'm just honored that they are considering me for the position," she said.

Haas said he plans to leave the agency within two months, in part, to avoid impacting Elections Commission Legal Counsel Nathan Judnic.

Haas said he's not sure if he will remain with the commission for the next two months and leave just before Judnic would be laid off or leave earlier. He plans to help the commission get through the April 3 spring election.

Meanwhile, Ethics Specialist Colette Reinke will serve as interim administrator for the Ethics Commission for 90 days while a search is conducted for a permanent replacement for Bell.

Commission Chair David Halbrooks, who supported the Feb. 27 move, said Reinke will not apply for the permanent appointment.

Halbrooks said he wanted to ensure lawmakers do not step in to appoint someone, and he worried an appointment by the Legislature would be unacceptable to commissioners.

If the Ethics Commission position is vacant for 45 days, lawmakers have the power to fill it.

"My vote was to appoint somebody rather than to take the risk the GOP would appoint somebody or that we would have to terminate that person as being unacceptable," he said.

Commissions Katie McCallum and Pat Strachota, both GOP appointees, opposed the move.

Strachota said she did not object to Reinke, but had problems with the process. The commission did not move to start a search for a new administrator immediately after the Senate voted Jan. 23 to reject Bell, which Strachota said put commissioners in a time crunch.

Halbrooks said the commission will now contact DOA about the process to search for a permanent administrator.

The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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