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Public Works Committee approves lease for congressman’s proposed office at Kenosha County Center

BRISTOL – A second committee has approved a proposed lease of office space for US Rep. Bryan Steil whose staff expects to provide constituents services at the Kenosha County Center.

On Monday, the Public Works and Facilities Committee voted 7-0 in favor of a satellite office for the congressman, who, on Friday held one of five listening sessions in the district and the first one of the year at the County Center, 19600 75th St. in Bristol.

Two weeks ago, the county’s Finance and Administration Committee voted 5-1 approving a lease with Steil, R-Wis., who represents Wisconsin’s First Congressional District that includes Kenosha County.

Under an agreement with the county and required by the US House of Representatives, Steil would lease a 120-square-foot office over a two-year period through Jan. 2, 2025. Via the chief administrative officer for the US House, Steil would rent the office for $350 per month.

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Congress should pay `market rate’

Supervisor Laura Belsky said she was in support of the resolution allowing the lease but wondered why federal legislators could not be charged “market rate” for the office space.

“Since we are talking about taxpayer dollars and we are talking about state and federal funds that we’ll be paying for this area, I would have liked to have seen a greater cost per square foot than $3,” she said. “Because if any of our representatives needed an office and had to go to a private industry they’d be paying well more and I’d like to just make sure … whoever, whether it’s, you know, Congresswoman (Tammy) Baldwin, or Steil or (Senator Ron) Johnson, whoever it is, that they pay market rate.”

Earlier, County Executive Samantha Kerkman had been approached by Steil’s staff about use of office space in the County Center, after officials with the Village of Somers, where Steil had previously had an office, indicated they were undergoing a number of changes affecting their space needs and could no longer offer him one.

During the Finance Committee meeting, Kerkman said there were three empty offices directly across from the one she has at the center that Steil could use for constituent services. The proposed office is located in an interior corridor space in the County Center.

The office would be staffed twice a week or by appointment and is intended to facilitate communication between constituents and Steil, said John Moyer, senior assistant Corporation Counsel.

“The idea is a convenience thing to have a one shop, one stop location to talk to the representative here,” he said. “It would be pro-rated if there’s a fractional month (of use).”

Either Steil or the county could terminate the lease with 30 days notice.

“From a legal standpoint, there’s no problem with leasing space. I know there are concerns about we want to be impartial, make sure there’s no campaigning and no partisan political activity coming out of the office,” Moyer said. “And, that’s the law, the rule on this.”

Campaign activity prohibited

Supervisor Mark Nordigian, who chairs the committee, questioned whether constituents and/or staff could talk political campaigning while behind closed doors in such a facility.

Susie Liston, Steil’s district director, said staff who are employed by the US House of Representatives along with members of Congress undergo ethics training every year addressing official duties whether helping people navigate federal agencies to constituents registering their opinions on issues.

“And (with) campaigning … there can be absolutely no campaign activity. So you cannot use government-taxpayer, computers, telephones,” she said. “Any conversation about any type of campaign activity, how to vote, like a political commercial, for example, you can’t give commentary.”

“We have to refer everything to a campaign office. So it’s a very, very clear, concise separation line. So I’ll say for example, somebody calls and says, `I don’t like Brian’s (campaign) commercial.’ We have to say, `I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to discuss that under federal law. But here’s the telephone number for the campaign office. You can talk to them about that’.”

Nordigian further pressed Liston on whether Steil or his staff could hand out a yard sign to a supporter.

“No. Can’t even do that,” she said.

Supervisor John Franco, who attended the meeting, but is not on the committee, asked to clarify what types of constituent services would be handled in the office.

Liston said one of Steil’s main duties is to serve as a liaison between the public and federal agencies in an effort to “cut through the red tape and bureaucracy and to try to get that problem resolved.”

“So whether it be like the IRS, Social Security, the VA (Veterans Administration), postal service, so basically every federal agency we can assist with,” she said. Constituents can also give suggestions about a bill or “how the government is working” to share with Steil, she said.

Last year, Steil’s staff assisted in resolving more than 2,000 cases, she said.

Uniform building use policy proposed

While the committee approved the lease, which is expected to go before the County Board sometime in February, Public Works administration and the Corporation Counsel are currently in the process of drafting a building use policy, one that Moyer said is “long overdue.”

Moyer was responding to Supervisor Zack Stock’s question about the types of office spaces available for lease to other legislators and the process by which they would be made available.

“We need to … adopt a uniform policy and I think that will give us a clear, out-to-the-public policy that we would follow in a situation like that,” Moyer said.

Public Works Director Shelly Billingsley said a draft report for the proposed uniform building use policy was previously submitted and contains language for external reservations, however, staff is now in the process of modifying it to incorporate leases. An updated version could be available in the next month or two, she said.

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