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Lawmaker signing new lease over complaint

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JAMES P. LEUTE
January 7, 2011
— Rep. Joe Knilans said he will sign a lease today on a single bedroom apartment in the 44th Assembly District in an effort to end a controversy about his residency in the city.

Knilans' change of address will come one day after the Democratic Party of Wisconsin filed a formal complaint with the state calling for the removal of the Janesville Republican as the district's representative.


The complaint filed Thursday with the state attorney general's office focuses on the residency of Knilans, who defeated Democratic Rep. Mike Sheridan in the November election.


At the time of the election, Knilans was living with his family on Alpine Drive, which is outside the 44th District. As a result, he couldn't vote in the election.


Once elected, he signed a lease with his brother and made his official residence 1516 Winchester Place, which is in the district.


He also said he was sleeping in his brother's basement, which the Democratic Party contends is unfinished and not recognized by city building codes for habitation.


Knilans has said the family has been unsuccessful in trying to sell the house on Alpine Drive. He has said it is his intention to move the family into a house in the district when the other one sells.


"I'm tired of having my brother and his family have to deal with the press inquiries and taking pictures outside his house," Knilans said Thursday night of his decision to move to an apartment on Prospect Avenue. "I'll kill the issue and move into an apartment so it doesn't look like I'm trying to skirt anything.


"But I know what I did was legal, and I'm certain the city inspector will determine that," he said.


Knilans said he'd received several calls from constituents Thursday who offered to rent him space in their finished basements, all of which are up to city codes for habitation.


"The support has been incredible," he said.


At the request of WKOW Channel 27 in Madison, the city said Wednesday that it would investigate the brother's basement to determine whether it's legally habitable.


The party's complaint, filed by spokesman Graeme Zielinski, says Knilans has claimed the Winchester address as his voting address while his family resides at the Alpine Drive address.


The complaint references the Wisconsin Constitution, which states: "No person shall be eligible to the Legislature who shall not have resided one year within the state, and be a qualified elector in the district which he may be chosen to represent."


Reid Magney of the Government Accountability Board said Wisconsin law requires a lawmaker to be a qualified elector who has established residency in the district at least 10 days before being sworn into office.


Mike Wittenwyler is the lead attorney in the Political Law Group of the Madison office of Godfrey & Kahn. He said the real debate begins when trying to determine what it really means to be a "resident" and to have "resided" at a particular address.


On the question of residency, Wittenwyler said the Wisconsin Constitution states that a legislator must be a "qualified elector," which is defined in Wisconsin Statute 6.02.


That statute defines qualified electors as "every U.S. citizen age 18 or older who has resided in an election district or ward for 10 days before any election where the citizen offers to vote."


Wittenwyler said the issue is not whether a legislator was eligible to vote on Election Day but whether he would be eligible to do so on the date of his swearing in.


He said the statute does not provide an answer as to what it means to have "resided" in the district and, as a result, the statute needs to be interpreted based on the facts and circumstances of each situation.


"Generally, residency for voting is established by where a person sleeps, where habitation is fixed," Wittenwyler said.


The party's complaint contends that the basement Knilans is living in is uninhabitable and "that if Knilans is required to vacate his basement residence due to building code deficiencies, he will not have been a legal resident of the 44th Assembly District for 10 days prior to taking office as required by Wis. Stat. 6.02."


The attorney general's office told the Wisconsin Radio Network on Thursday that it had received the complaint and it is under review. The network reported that because Knilans has been sworn into office, the attorney general's office would likely pass on its findings to Republican leaders in the state Assembly to determine if Knilans is qualified to serve.


Magney said the Government Accountability Board is not in a position to make that determination. He also agreed that the Assembly would likely determine the matter, and he referred the question to Patrick Fuller, the Assembly's chief clerk.


Fuller did not return a phone call Thursday, and it's uncertain what Knilans' change of address will do to the party's complaint.


Knilans said that he wants to put the matter to rest and focus instead on representing the people who elected him in November.


"This is not the Democrats in the Capitol who are doing this," Knilans said. "I've had support from them in the Capitol. It's the Democratic Party of Wisconsin that initiated this, and I think it's because the party feels that it's entitled to this seat, and that's why they're coming after me.


"But the people of Janesville spoke in the November election," he said.



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