The lead lawyer for the state agency in charge of settling state labor-management disputes would become a political appointee under a proposal included in Gov. Scott Walker's biennial budget, a change critics say injects political influence into an agency that is supposed to be impartial.

As a political appointee, the general counsel for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission could be fired more easily, making it more difficult to give impartial advice to the commission, unions and state agencies, said George Fleischli, a Madison lawyer and arbitrator who held the position when it was created in 1975.

"It puts this person is a very difficult position ethically," Fleischli said.

Cullen Werwie, a Walker spokesman, said the governor believes it's "reasonable to have general counsels be appointed positions" and dismissed concerns that the change would erode confidence in the commission's impartiality.

The commission administers the state's collective bargaining laws, including making rulings on unfair labor practices complaints, such as the one the Wisconsin State Employees Union filed Feb. 28 against Walker, claiming he was refusing to negotiate on a new contract.

For some 35,000 state employees who will be losing most of their bargaining authority this month under a measure Walker signed last week, it will be the final arbiter in disputes that were previously covered under contract provisions.

Walker said those employees will be protected by existing civil service protections, which include the right to appeal to the WERC. The agency also handles appeals filed by nonunion employees who dispute serious disciplinary actions.

The current general counsel, Peter Davis, has held the position as a career civil servant since 1981, which has enabled him to give impartial advice on highly controversial issues without fear of reprisals, said commission chair Judy Neumann.

"Being a civil servant, he doesn't have to worry about whether we're going to agree with him or going to get upset with him, and we really need that," Neumann said. 

Neumann and Will Stricker, who was appointed in 1989 by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, said the change could lead to a perception that the agency is partisan.

"I would hope the governor wouldn't exert that kind of influence, said Stricker, who served until 1995. 

The counsel is hired by the chair of the three-member commission. Walker can appoint two members and name a new chair, Neumann said.

Commissioners' terms are for six years with terms staggered to reduce the odds the agency can become the creature of any one governor, Neumann said.

Walker removed civil service protection from 37 other agency lawyers and communications specialists in a budget repair bill announced Feb. 11. The governor already has control of hiring and firing of about 70. Davis is the only one added to the list in the biennial budget, which was announced March 1.

Davis said he suspects the proposal to change the status of his post may be the result of frank statements he has made to legislators and the media about the potential of Walker's plans to cripple public sector unions. Werwie denied that the change was retaliatory and said at least two such changes were inadvertently omitted from the repair bill.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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