The staff of the state Elections Commission have not changed their approach to their jobs despite uncertainty over the agency's leadership, administrator Michael Haas said Wednesday.
The commission voted 4-2 last week to reappoint Haas to his post through the end of April after Republicans in the state Senate voted to remove him. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the commission's vote was illegal, and Walker's administration has said it will not recognize Haas as administrator. He is now classified under his previous position as staff counsel for the commission.
Haas told reporters the commission is taking steps to ensure any actions it takes during the period of uncertainty cannot be challenged.
"We are making sure we do everything we can to minimize those situations to make sure if there is possibly a legal question, that we address it either by having communications (to state agencies) signed by the chair or signed by staff counsel, just to take that off the table," Haas said.
For example, he said, staff counsel Nathan Judnic signed off on a recent communication with the state Department of Justice.
The commission voted 4-2 on Wednesday to delay any further action on filling the administrator position until a special meeting March 2. Under state law, if the commission does not appoint an interim administrator within 45 days of a vacancy, the Legislature is required to select one.
Fitzgerald said in a statement that he is "concerned" the commission's decision will "force the Legislature to act."
"I will be reaching out to (Joint Committee on Legislative Organization) co-chairs Roth and Vos, as well as Minority Leader Shilling, to discuss the issue. In the meantime, I urge the commission to reconsider its position and install a new administrator prior to the March 9th deadline," Fitzgerald said.
Commissioner Dean Knudson, a Republican former state representative, encouraged the commission to begin a national search for a new administrator sooner rather than later.
"We have a diminishing window of time in order to exercise our statutory ability to appoint the leader of the commission. That window is pretty small," Knudson said. "I don’t understand why we would want to delay on getting going on what I view as inevitable."
In the meantime, Knudson suggested appointing assistant administrator Meagan Wolfe to the top position.
Other commissioners argued those actions could still be taken in March.
Commissioner Ann Jacobs, a Democrat, questioned whether the state could attract high-caliber candidates to apply for the administrator position after the Senate vote earlier this month.
Jacobs said any new appointees would have "the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads" knowing the Senate could delay a confirmation vote and ultimately reject them. Jacobs also questioned the sentiment from some Republican lawmakers that they will not trust any former employees of the now-defunct Government Accountability Board to lead the agency.
"I think that's sort of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face," Jacobs said.
Haas told reporters he would be "inclined" to stay on as administrator if the commission wanted him, but "on the other hand, the way everything shook out at the Senate is discouraging and... I think it happened for no good reason."
The Senate votes to reject the confirmations of Haas as elections administrator and Brian Bell as Ethics Commission administrator came about a month after the release of a state Department of Justice investigation into leaked documents from a John Doe investigation into Gov. Scott Walker and his allies. The report placed the blame for the leak on the now-defunct Government Accountability Board.
The GAB was dismantled by Republican lawmakers in 2015, in part because they believed it was biased against their party. It was replaced with the Ethics and Elections commissions, whose bipartisan members put Bell and Haas — both former GAB employees — in charge.
Because both Bell and Haas were employed at a time the agency was involved with the John Doe probe, Fitzgerald has said members of his party will never trust them to head nonpartisan agencies. Fitzgerald said he told both administrators more than a year ago they would never receive Senate confirmation, but both deny they were ever told their appointments were temporary.
Both Haas and Bell had the support of their commission members after the DOJ report was released.