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Friday, August 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Union asks judge to find Wisconsin DOA in contempt for limits on Capitol access
Whose house? TBD
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A teacher from Waunakee is wanded Monday at the state
Capitol.
A teacher from Waunakee is wanded Monday at the state Capitol.
Credit:Bill Lueders

It's early morning on Monday, May 16, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard entrance to the Wisconsin state Capitol is manned by four armed officers. The same number guard the building's only other open entrance, at North Hamilton Street.

At first, most of those who enter - 16 of 20 people in a 10-minute span, including state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen - flash IDs and breeze past the checkpoint. One young man brings in a bulging backpack without difficulty.

But for those who lack the requisite ID, getting into the building means emptying pockets and going through a metal detector; and then, if the machine beeps, getting a going-over with a handheld wand.

"Wallet, keys, watch, change," these visitors are told before being screened. "Put your hand over your belt buckle."

Suddenly, at 8:45 a.m., the door opens and the din of children fills the hallway. "School!" shouts a woman leading the group. "Fifty kids." They are two classes of fourth-graders from Waunakee.

The woman, a teacher, sets off the metal detector and is taken to the side to be wanded in front of her charges. A pretty girl with short hair, black stockings and a purple dress also sets off the detector. The officer who takes her aside speaks in a soft voice, saying something about horses. She holds her hand by her mouth, nervously, as he wands her.

As the children filter through, an adult chaperone accompanying her granddaughter on this class trip sees a reporter taking notes and offers her thoughts.

"Every time I come here I feel like crying," says the woman, Jane Roberts, who was a teacher herself for 30 years, in Whitewater and Delavan, where Gov. Scott Walker went to school.

Roberts is "heartsick" about Walker's proposed cuts to public education and efforts to curb the bargaining rights of public employees. And then to see these students treated like potential threats.... She sighs, and wanders off to the Rotunda, now resonant with the voices of children.

Security at the Capitol remains historically tight, weeks after a period of notably peaceful protests. Democratic lawmakers and others accuse the state Department of Administration (DOA) of violating a court order to return the building to former levels of access.

"It's not even close to being open to the same degree," says Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), the Assembly's minority leader, who doesn't see any justification for these constraints. "I can't understand what they're protecting against. It seems like a total waste of money to me."

But DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch says he's only doing what is necessary to protect the Capitol and its occupants. And he suggests he'll be doing it for some time to come, since "the issue that really instigated the demonstrations in the first place" - Walker's anti-union agenda, now tied up in court - "has by no means been resolved."

Next Tuesday, May 24, a hearing is set to begin before Dane County Judge John Albert on a contempt-of-court motion filed by former state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, representing the Wisconsin State Employees Union. [UPDATE: The start date of this hearing has been postponed.]

Lautenschlager on Feb. 28 sued the state, seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction against the restrictions on Capitol access in place at that time, when the building was occupied by protesters.

On March 1, Judge Albert ordered that the building be open to the public during regular business hours and when official business is conducted. On March 8, after giving protesters the boot (they left voluntarily, without a single arrest), he ordered DOA to allow continued access "utilizing the procedures in place on Jan. 28, 2011," before the protests began.

Back in late January, the building had eight working entrances and no weapons screening. Lautenschlager believes that's the level of access that should have been restored.

"Defendant Huebsch and the state of Wisconsin violated the March 1, 2011, order of this court and violated and are continuing to violate the March 8, 2011, order of this court," states an amended contempt motion filed last week. It asks the court to force compliance with these earlier orders and impose a $2,000 fine "for each day the contempt continues," among other relief.

At a press conference last Friday, Huebsch said Judge Albert "also made it clear that DOA is charged with making the Capitol secure and safe." He maintains the building is open, albeit with "a little bit more of a delay" than in the past.

Lautenschlager counters that DOA is "looking to parse bits and pieces of what [Judge Albert] said in order to justify what they want to do, which is to restrict access." She disputes that the weapons screening is needed or makes the building safer, and argues that it "deters public participation" in the affairs of government, by making the building less accessible.

Huebsch, in an April 25 deposition, agreed with Lautenschlager's characterization of his position, that "the prime use of the [Capitol] building is fundamentally business in the Legislature, the courts, and the governor."

In this and other respects, says Lautenschlager, Huebsch seems to think the Capitol needs to be run as a business an analogy she believes is missing one critical component: "The citizens are the shareholders and they have the right to come in."

Moreover, she suggests the DOA's actions are politically motivated: "Had this been the Tea Party rallying against Democratic senators, I don't know if their response would have been the same."

Huebsch, in his deposition, revealed that he's asked the National Guard for a report on building security, to guide his agency's decisions. He said he'd like to reopen the building entirely, congruent with the desire of the public and Judge Albert, but "I do not believe that is going to be the recommendation of law enforcement [or] even the report."

The DOA has estimated the total cost of security at the Capitol through March 13 at $7.8 million, with invoices still coming in. It has yet to put a dollar amount on the cost of maintaining current enhanced levels of Capitol security, though Huebsch was asked in his deposition to provide this information.

DOA spokeswoman Carla Vigue says Capitol police officers "have been working 12-hour shifts rather than the normal eight," and, most days, "we have at least eight extra State Patrol officers on duty," with occasional additional help from other state agencies.

No one has been arrested for trying to bring weapons into the building, though Vigue says "some items like knives and pepper spray have been confiscated." Pocket knives are tagged and can be retrieved on exit.

But for some, such measures are an abomination. On March 23, state Rep. Cory Mason (D-Kenosha) sent a letter to Huebsch, complaining about having a group of fourth-graders from a school in his district screened for weapons.

"What message does it send to our state's young people that they have to open their backpacks for inspection and go through metal detectors to enter the seat of their government?" he asked. He said this and other changes, like the closing of the Capitol cafeteria, had prompted another school in his district to cancel a planned Capitol visit.

Mason demanded "an immediate answer from your office as to when the metal detectors will be removed, when all of the doors to the Capitol will be reopened to the public, when the basement cafeteria will again be open to school groups, and when you plan on complying with Judge Albert's order."

He's still waiting. A planned meeting was canceled and has not yet been rescheduled. "We're supposedly trying to find another date," says Mason, without conviction.

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