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Wisconsin Spotlight: ‘This could happen anywhere’

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Former Green Bay City Clerk Kris Teske has been called a “super hero” for standing up against the pressures of city officials and outside election activists interfering in her office.

Teske’s fellow municipal clerks also see the long-time public servant as a cautionary tale.

“Before what happened in Green Bay, this wasn’t even a thought. After reading about what went on there, a lot of clerks went, ‘Holy cow! Mostly they are saying, ‘Thank God it wasn’t me,” Kelly Michaels, Master Municipal Clerk for the city of Brookfield said.

Michaels is past president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association and chairwoman of the group’s Legislative Communications and Advocacy Committee. She said Green Bay’s beleaguered former clerk has been a topic of grave concern in recent weeks.

Tempting offers

As a Wisconsin Spotlight investigation uncovered, Teske grew so frustrated with third-party groups and city officials meddling in her office and bullying her and her staff that she resigned. A complaint filed last week with the Wisconsin Elections Commission alleges Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich, his chief of staff and other city officials “allowed private activist groups to control significant aspects of the 2020 (presidential) election, including ballot ‘curing’ and vote counting.”

The Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life handed out more than $8 million in “election safety and security” grants to Wisconsin’s five largest and most heavily Democratic cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. CTCL received $350 million from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife to “help” local elections offices administer elections.

Emails obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight show Teske voicing concerns about being cut out of election administration decisions. The $1.6 million in grant funding Green Bay received included strings attached that required the clerk’s office to work with CTCL’s left-leaning partners including a long-time Democratic operative who Teske warned the city about.

At one point, the clerk felt it necessary to tell her superior that she would not break election laws.

“There is one more thing I want to say: If I am ever asked to do anything against the law the answer will be NO!” Teske wrote in an Aug. 26 email to Diana Ellenbecker, Green Bay’s Finance director and Teske’s immediate supervisor.

Green Bay received a lot of money from CTCL grants — more than four times its total elections budget for 2020. Too much money for cash-strapped cities to resist.

“The comments from our committee members were that this could really happen anywhere — for the right dollar amount,” Michaels said. “While everyone thinks it could never happen here, you start thinking about $1.6 million … What would be the price tag in my community where it would be worth it to sidestep the gatekeeper, the municipal clerk?”

Michaels said Brookfield, a suburban Milwaukee city of about 40,000 people, received a $14,000 grant from CTCL. It was chump change compared to the hefty funding the “Wisconsin 5” cities received, and it didn’t come with the same strings attached. Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, Wisconsin State Lead for the National Vote at Home Institute, a CTCL partner, reached out several times with offers to help Brookfield with its November election.

Spitzer-Rubenstein, with an impressive record in Democratic and liberal politics offered a long list of election administration services, but Michaels, a 30-year municipal clerk veteran, said she wasn’t interested in the kind of “help” the activist was offering for “free.”

‘Hard to do’

Wendy Helgeson, village clerk for the Town Greenville, a community 45 miles southwest of Green Bay, said clerks are under a lot of pressure, whether there’s an election or not. But Helgeson, president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association, said Teske’s troubles drove home the outside pressure clerks have faced, particularly in an unprecedented election year strained by a pandemic.

“I applaud her for removing herself from that situation and I think it empowered other people to stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right. I’m removing myself.’ That’s hard to do,” Helgeson said.

It came at a cost for Teske. She took a considerable pay cut, sources say, in accepting the clerk’s position in nearby Ashwaubenon. Teske was earning $62,308 a year in Green Bay, where she had served as city clerk since 2012.

Fed up, Teske took a leave of absence less than two weeks before the November election and officially resigned on Dec. 31. In October, she filed a complaint alleging a hostile work environment in Green Bay. The city’s Human Resources director dismissed the complaint four months later. Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich and other city officials have denied Teske’s allegations.

Helgeson said there has been a lot of turnover over the past year, with even more “horror stories” from overworked municipal clerks. Green Bay’s election scandal may make cities think twice about accepting third-party election administration grants, Helgeson said.

Not for sale

On Wednesday, the state Senate passed a bill that would check the kind of outside money that Zuckerberg-funded groups dumped on Wisconsin.

“Election administration is a sacred function of government and it should never be for sale,” the bill’s author, Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) said. “Out-of-state billionaires must never be the ones who pay for election administration in our state.”

State Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), who chairs the Assembly Campaign and Elections Commission, said the left-leaning groups invested heavily where the votes were, using COVID-19 as the means to achieve their goals of watering down voter integrity laws.

“This was an opportunity for these outside groups to take advantage of the process. In many ways it was the perfect storm,” she said. “If it could happen once, it could happen again.”

 

Photo courtesy of USA Today Network 

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