The head of the state Government Accountability Board defended the work done by his staff, as lawmakers push for making reforms at the agency that oversees Wisconsin elections and ethics laws.
GAB director Kevin Kennedy went before the Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee Wednesday, about a month after the release of an audit that was critical of some of the agency’s practices. He responded to the findings at length, explaining how many of the situations came about and how the GAB has already been working to address them.
The audit found that GAB staff did fulfill many of its required duties, including the training of municipal clerks and working to improve polling place accessibility. However, it also shows staff failed to complete other duties that included mandated post-election reviews to determine if felons voted in an election and audits of electronic voting equipment. It also showed the GAB falling behind on promulgating, amending or removing several administrative rules, while staff failed to regularly provide the retired judges who oversee the board with complete information on their enforcement efforts and that the agency lacked a written procedures for considering complaints.
Kennedy told lawmakers Wednesday that many of those duties got pushed off because the agency was dealing with “one of the most politically tumultuous periods in any state capitol in America.”
The audit looked at operations over the past four years, an era that saw the GAB handling lawsuits over a voter ID requirement and legislative redistricting, along with 19 recall elections and a statewide recount in the 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court Race. Kennedy said “these extraordinary events forced the board and me to make tough decisions about how to allocate and where to deploy our resources. We had to set priorities and we had to be flexible.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Republican members called into question some of the claims being made to defend the agency. After Kennedy pointed to concerns about staffing levels and retaining workers whose positions are covered with federal funds, Joint Finance Committee co-chair John Nygren (R-Marinette) said those concerns had never been brought to his attention, noting that he had just a single meeting with the agency in the past two years. The Marinette Republican told Kennedy “We take our responsibility seriously, as I assume you do, but to hear now that it’s about staffing and about commitments from the Legislature is kind of offensive…you can’t solve a problem if you don’t know about it.”
Kennedy told lawmakers that the agency is working to fix the issues highlighted in the audit. Still, Republican lawmakers have said the report is a sign of serious problems at the GAB and work is underway on legislation that could result in changes to how it operates.