Commission picks Wolfe as interim elections chief

MADISON — The Wisconsin Elections Commission picked a new administrator Friday after incumbent Michael Haas stepped aside following a bitter squabble with Senate Republicans.

The commission voted unanimously to promote Assistant Administrator Meagan Wolfe to the lead position on an interim basis pending Senate confirmation. She will take over for Haas, who said this week that he would take a staff attorney position after the Senate in January refused to confirm him and Ethics Commission Administrator Brian Bell.

Republican senators said they couldn't trust Haas or Bell because they worked for the now-defunct Government Accountability Board, which investigated whether Gov. Scott Walker's campaign illegally colluded with outside conservative groups.

Bell stepped down two days after the Senate vote, returning to his old job at the state Department of Safety and Professional Services. The Ethics Commission named ethics specialist Colette Reinke as interim administrator while it searches for a permanent replacement.

Democrats on the Elections Commission, though, disputed that the Senate vote meant Haas was out. The panel voted 4-2 in January to retain him. On Monday, however, Haas sent the commission a letter saying he was done because the fight had become a distraction as the commission prepares to administer the 2018 elections. He will move into a position as a staff attorney with the commission, taking a $30,000 pay cut.

Republican Commissioner Dean Knudson made a motion Friday to appoint Wolfe on an interim basis and launch a national search for a permanent administrator. The commission needs a leader who can win confirmation, and whoever emerges from a search would have the best chance of pleasing the Senate, he argued.

Democratic Commissioner Ann Jacobs countered that a search would cost time and money and could result in hiring an administrator who's unfamiliar with Wisconsin voting systems as the 2018 elections loom. She also questioned why the Senate would confirm anybody since that would mean senators couldn't remove them.

The commission voted down Knudson's motion 6-1, then voted unanimously to promote Wolfe and submit her name for confirmation.

"We've had three months of uncertainty here," Republican Commissioner Jodi Jensen said. "We don't need any more of it."

Wolfe also worked for the GAB. Asked if she even wanted the administrator job given what happened to Haas, she said she was interested in continuing the commission's work on elections. She said she didn't know if her history with the GAB would derail her confirmation.

"I don't have a crystal ball to know the answer to that one," she said.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald issued a statement Friday saying he was pleased that the commission had moved to restore stability. He said he met with Wolfe last week and was impressed by her knowledge of election issues. He urged GOP senators to meet with her before the Senate ends its two-year session later this month.