The embattled former chair of Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board said he’s resigning after refusing to step down at the end of his term for more than a year.
Dr. Fred Prehn, a Wausau dentist and businessman, said he intends to leave the board on Dec. 30.
In a letter obtained from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ office, Prehn wrote he always said he would vacate his seat when the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed his replacement. Evers appointed Sandy Naas, a conservationist from Ashland County, to the board in April last year. So far, GOP lawmakers have refused to confirm her.
"It is time for the state legislators to act on Governor Evers nomination as soon as practical and it is now time for me to move on," Prehn wrote.
Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback declined to comment on Prehn’s resignation.
"I am pleased that Dr. Prehn has decided to do the right thing and step down from his position on the Natural Resources Board, and I’m looking forward to the state senate getting back to performing its constitutional duty of taking up the governor’s appointees for a vote," Democratic Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard said in a statement. "With the highly qualified individuals Governor Evers has put forward for the Natural Resources Board, I am hopeful this can be done in a bipartisan manner."
Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker appointed Prehn to the board in 2015. His term expired in May of 2021, but he had refused calls to step down. Prehn’s decision to stay had ensured conservatives would continue to hold a 4-3 majority of Walker appointees on the board that decides environmental policies, including standards recently enacted for PFAS in drinking and surface waters.
Although, earlier this month, Prehn took part in a unanimous vote to once again begin crafting PFAS standards in groundwater after the board rejected setting limits for groundwater in February.
Text messages released this fall showed that Prehn sought to maintain conservative control of the board.
In a January message, Prehn said he was stepping down as chair because he couldn't run more than three years in a row.
"But (I) still remain as a board member and I will effectively guarantee a conservative gets to have the chairmanship," Prehn wrote. "Supreme court hearing is March 10. That will effectively, and hopefully allow me to remain around till the election."
As first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Prehn sought advice from conservative lobbyists, state senators, Walker and former Republican candidate for governor Rebecca Kleefisch. In another text, Prehn wrote, "I'll see if I can hang on till Becky gets in." The text appears to be a reference to Kleefisch, who was defeated in the August primary election by Republican Tim Michels.
His presence on the board sparked a lawsuit from Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul seeking to remove him. The lawsuit was dismissed by another Dane County judge. Kaul appealed the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The court's conservative majority ruled in June that Prehn could remain on the board indefinitely.
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The state’s high court found a vacancy on the board is only created when a person dies, resigns or is removed for cause.
"Unfortunately, it took the Supreme Court to confirm my decision to stay on at great expense for the taxpayer and an immense personal price," Prehn wrote.
As of September, Naas is one of at least 150 Evers appointees that have yet to be confirmed, according to data obtained by WPR from Wisconsin's nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. In January, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, told WisPolitics that the Senate would not take up remaining Evers appointments.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated Dr. Fred Prehn is one of at least 150 Evers appointees yet to be confirmed when it is Sandy Naas who is yet to be confirmed.