Republicans in the state Assembly came out Monday in support of raising the pay for attorneys representing poor defendants as the state faces a class-action lawsuit over the issue.
Assembly Republicans said they also backed hiring 61 more assistant district attorneys and raising pay for prosecutors, public defenders and correctional officers.
Their plan would cost about $50 million over two years, according to Republican Rep. Mark Born of Beaver Dam, who sits on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
“These initiatives are tough but smart on crime,” Born said at a news conference in the state Capitol.
He did not make public certain details of the plan, such as how much of a raise correctional officers and others would get.
Wisconsin pays private attorneys $40 an hour to represent criminal defendants when the State Public Defender’s office can’t handle the work. That’s the lowest rate in the nation, and many attorneys say it doesn’t cover their overhead costs.
The plan Born announced Monday would raise the pay to $70 an hour. That increase would cost taxpayers about $33 million over two years, according to state records.
Because of the existing rate, private attorneys often refuse to take cases, leading to delays in getting defendants representation.
Last month, six people facing charges in Ashland and Bayfield counties sued in federal court over the issue.
The public defender’s office outsources up to 40 percent of its cases because it doesn’t have enough attorneys to cover all of them and sometimes has conflicts that prevent it from representing some defendants.
In rural areas, it can take weeks to find private attorneys for defendants.
So far, lawmakers have declined to put more money toward the issue. The state Supreme Court last year declined to establish higher pay rates for such attorneys but called the matter “an emerging constitutional crisis.”
Opponents of Wisconsin’s system and the delays it causes argue the pay rate infringes on defendants’ right to a speedy trial, right to confront accusers and right to assistance from counsel. They also contend it leads to a less efficient court system.
The plan announced Monday has the backing of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, public defender Kelli Thompson and Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg, the president-elect of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association.
“This legislative initiative moves Wisconsin forward,” Roggensack said in a statement. “If enacted, it will support essential constitutional guarantees.”
Donald F. Anderson
Linda Fay Beard-Whitehead
William J. Burke
Mark “Moose” Crisman
Lucy “Mama Lucy” Davidson
Virginia “Ginny” Freund
Charlene Ann Hoyt
Russell J. Lucht
Harvey D. Morrison
Norman Nehmer, IV
An energy company seeking land in the town of Darien for a possible 250-megawatt solar farm also is targeting landowners in the town of Bradford, a project consultant said Monday.
Neil Palmer of Invenergy, the Chicago company negotiating land agreements in Rock and Walworth counties, said the company wants 1,400 to 1,700 acres that potentially could house a massive, interconnected array of solar panels.
He said the company has signed lease agreements with landowners in each county.
The project would resemble one the company has proposed in Iowa County. That project, which is currently under consideration by the state Public Service Commission, would produce 300 megawatts of electricity—enough to power more than 70,000 homes, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Residents who oppose that project worry about valuable farmland becoming unusable for years and fear that the 1.2 million solar panels would hurt the area’s scenic beauty and create loud noises, the State Journal reported.
Like the Iowa County proposal, Palmer said the land in Rock and Walworth counties would not be contiguous but rather scattered across various parcels. Some land might be acquired in neighboring municipalities, such as the village of Darien, he said.
About 1,700 acres are needed for the local project, which would generate up to 250 megawatts of solar energy, Palmer said. However, he said the company must secure 25 percent more land than necessary to apply for permits with the commission.
Palmer spoke Monday at the Walworth County Board’s Land Conservation Committee meeting, where members discussed a letter from a resident who questioned the company’s land negotiations.
Judy Gause, whose family owns land in the town of Darien, wrote that the land under consideration is part of the fertile Rock Prairie and is in the Farmland Preservation Program. She worried about installing solar panels in the area and asked if the company could take a different approach to solar energy.
More than 25 people attended Monday’s meeting, with some voicing concerns about the proposed solar farm during the public comment period.
Many said they feared property values near the arrays would decrease and that the quality of the farmland would diminish.
After the meeting, Palmer said the land would be restored after the 25-year lease agreements expire. Some leases could be renewed for a second 25-year term, he said.
Palmer pointed to the company’s ground-cover strategy in Iowa County, which includes a two-phase vegetation planting program that Invenergy would oversee. The company would have to remove everything and return the farmland to “the same or better agricultural condition” than it was previously, Palmer said.
If the project is approved, Palmer said the Public Service Commission would oversee the land’s restoration. He said the commission would create a fund and put money aside to restore the land in case the company goes bankrupt or is sold.
However, Palmer said the company has not yet acquired enough property to green-light the proposal.
He said the solar panels would be interconnected underground and could plug into a substation at the Rock and Walworth county line.
The company would try to secure easements to build the underground pipes on properties that do not have arrays, Palmer said.
Installing the panels would take about 18 months, Palmer said. The company tentatively estimates the arrays could be up and running by 2022, he said.
Michael Cotter, director of the county’s land use and resource management department, told the committee the county will not have regulatory or zoning authority over the project because the panels would produce more than 99 megawatts of electricity.
Cotter suggested Invenergy host an open house to address landowners’ concerns.
CEO had been placed on administrative leave
Tom Den Boer no longer will be CEO of the YMCA of Northern Rock County, the Y’s board president said in a statement Monday.
Board President Steve Yeko Jr. released a written statement saying Den Boer and the YMCA have “mutually parted ways” and that the board is enlisting help from the national YMCA to make changes in board organization and governance.
The statement doesn’t explain Den Boer’s exit, but it comes after months of rancor among Y members and former board members and what the Y board called a weekslong internal investigation of member concerns by the Y board.
Former board members, some who have now been reinstated to the board, went public late last year with allegations that Den Boer and a former Y board president in 2017 and 2018 had kicked off board members without due process after they asked questions about the Y’s finances and its governance.
Den Boer was placed on administrative leave in January, when the board hired an outside attorney to investigate members’ and former board members’ concerns.
Some members have alleged Den Boer suspended Y members after they asked questions about the Y’s leadership and sought financial and governance records.
One group of five concerned members threatened a lawsuit in January after the board failed to completely fulfill the group’s open records request. The group had sought financial records, board meeting minutes and other documents.
Yeko on Monday said the board has reviewed and released documents that were in the scope of the group’s earlier request, including “financial records, bylaws and board meetings minutes.”
The board’s hired spokesman indicated the board’s investigation is ongoing.
Yeko in his statement thanks Den Boer for his more than decade-long term at the helm of the Y, but the statement does not say when the board and Den Boer agreed to “part ways,” and it gives no details about the terms of Den Boer’s exit.
The statement does not make clear whether Den Boer’s exit is related to the internal investigation.
In an emailed response to The Gazette on Monday evening, Yeko declined to give further explanation about Den Boer’s departure, including whether it had anything to do with the board’s investigation.
“The YMCA of Northern Rock County and CEO Tom Den Boer have mutually agreed to part ways. As a personnel matter, the terms of that departure are confidential,” Yeko wrote.
Yeko in his statement wrote that based on the board’s investigation, “the board will be making changes in board and organizational governance, including the procedures related to board membership and YMCA membership.
“To help facilitate those changes, the board has engaged the YMCA of the USA. They will be working with us to help identify and implement best practices and connect us with interim leadership.”
In his email to The Gazette, Yeko gave more details about actions the board has taken in the course of its investigation, including:
Yeko wrote that as the board works with the YMCA of the USA, “it will continue to communicate with members and the public regarding changes made as a result of that process.”
Yeko wrote that “all operations of the YMCA are continuing without interruption” and the Y remains on “strong financial footing.”
YMCA member Paul Murphy, who is one of a group of five Y members who went public late last year with concerns over an apparent lack of transparency in the Y’s governance and finances, said he was one of the Y members whose memberships were suspended.
Murphy said he never got a reason for his suspension, but it came after he asked for Y financial and governance documents.
On Monday evening, Murphy said he had just heard about the Y and Den Boer parting ways. Murphy declined to comment on Den Boer’s departure.
Murphy said earlier this month the YMCA’s program director called him and told him his membership had been reinstated.
“This past Saturday, I went in and restocked my locker,” Murphy said. “So that’s back in business.”