EAU CLAIRE — The COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a difficult final year of service for all three of west-central Wisconsin’s outgoing state legislators, but the frustration felt by Sen. Patty Schachtner was intensely personal.
Not only did Schachtner, a Somerset Democrat, see the dark side of the pandemic daily in her other job as medical examiner for St. Croix County, but this fall the virus hit her family hard.
The toll began with a sister-in-law, brother-in-law, sister and niece testing positive and ended when her father, Richard Rivard, came down with the virus. The 88-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, who was a resident at Hammond Health Services, died from COVID-19 on Nov. 14.
“Had it not been for community spread, he never would have died,” Schachtner said this week. “My anger and grief is still going on ... and there are over 300,000 families in this country going through the same thing I am.”
Schachtner remains upset that the Legislature passed a pandemic aid package in April but never met or did anything else to address the disease that has killed more than 4,800 Wisconsinites and left tens of thousands without jobs. She puts the blame for that inaction squarely on the shoulders of Republicans who hold majorities in both the Assembly and Senate and thus set the legislative calendar.
“It made me so angry that we weren’t doing anything to help people,” Schachtner said. “As the daughter of someone who did nothing wrong but died from COVID in a nursing home, my anger and frustration with legislators who are playing political games while attending mass spreading events says more about them than it does about me.”
Despite her 2020 frustration, Schachtner, like fellow outgoing legislators Reps. Romaine Quinn and Bob Kulp, said she treasured her time as a legislator.
Since she never expected to win a special election three years ago for a 10th Senate District seat long held by Republicans, Schachtner said she feels blessed to have had the opportunity to serve even though she lost her bid for reelection in November to Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond.
Likewise, Quinn, R-Barron, called his three terms representing the 75th Assembly District “the honor of a lifetime,” and Kulp, R-Stratford, characterized his seven years representing the 69th Assembly District as “extremely rewarding.” Both men chose not to seek reelection.
All three legislators will be replaced Monday when newly elected lawmakers take the oath of office.
Both Quinn, a real estate agent, and Kulp, a businessman, defended the Legislature’s handling of the pandemic.
Despite the narrative Quinn said is being pushed by Democrats about the Legislature shirking its duty by not meeting during most of the pandemic, Quinn insisted it’s not unusual for lawmakers not to meet much after April in election years.
“We went in and passed everything we could in one shot,” Quinn said. “For people who wanted us in session, what did you want us to do? The schools are funded and the budget is passed.”
In the meantime, Quinn said he and other legislators focused on constituent service, which accounts for about 90% of their work.
Kulp said the pandemic was probably the most difficult challenge he encountered as a lawmaker because the political divide made it impossible to please anybody.
“We believed we were doing the best we could with the data we had with regard to balancing the concept of freedom and the ability to move about and people’s real health concerns, but people just would not hear you,” Kulp said. “You just got yelled at from both sides.”
When asked about the highlights of their time in office, none of the outgoing legislators mentioned their involvement with controversial, headline-grabbing bills. Instead, they all pointed to legislation they worked on that affected the lives of a group of constituents.
Kulp said his high point came when chairing a Legislative Council study committee on dyslexia, a learning disability. The committee’s work led to Wisconsin’s first dyslexia-specific law, authored by Kulp, which required the creation of a dyslexia guidebook for school districts. He believes it will help stop a slide in reading scores among state children.
Quinn mentioned his leadership on the Legislature’s Rural Wisconsin Initiative, which has pushed for the expansion of broadband and telehealth services in rural areas, as well as a bill he authored to help individuals with disabilities.
Colin’s Law, named after a young man from Rice Lake, enables people with invisible disabilities such as mental illness or hearing impairment to indicate that information on their driver’s license, which could help avoid potential misunderstandings with law enforcement.
“That was probably my favorite bill to work on because there was a real person behind it. The idea came from the mom of a son who struggled. It’s kind of a cool story,” Quinn said. “Anytime we can diffuse a situation ahead of time, the better in this day and age we live in.”
Schachtner said she is most proud of successfully working to get a “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign erected by the St. Croix Crossing bridge and to pass a disability voters rights bill. The bill addressed a problem, brought to her attention by a constituent who had been prohibited from voting, by making it legal for a resident to vote if a disability made it impossible for them to speak their name and be understood.
After serving in the minority for her entire stint in the Senate, Schachtner said she learned lessons about state government that will make her a better constituent.
She will now expect legislators to listen to her concerns, whether she voted for them or not, because that’s how she spent a lot of her time in office.
“We have to remember that we live in a democracy and whoever wins represents all of us,” Schachtner said. “If you’re not listening to the people who didn’t vote for you, you’re not doing your job.”
She encouraged all voters to hold their elected officials accountable, especially when it comes to putting more emphasis on playing politics than helping people — the misplaced priorities she accuses Republican legislative leaders of following in response to the pandemic.
“As a constituent, I find that appalling,” Schachtner said. “If your goal is to make the governor look not successful, then your goal is not serving the people of Wisconsin. Do better.”
Asked what message he would like to share with lawmakers, Quinn pointed directly at the partisan divide. He called on legislators to be nicer to each other.
“At the end of the day, the biggest thing is I would encourage my colleagues to tone down the rhetoric, especially on the floor,” Quinn said. “Just because someone doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean they’re a bad person.”
Kulp shared a similar sentiment promoting civility.
“There’s a lot of work left to be done,” Kulp advised. “Just work together on the things you can, and keep the political posturing to a minimum. Keep doing the good work for the people of Wisconsin.”
EAU CLAIRE — Several older rental homes on Water Street would be replaced by three-story apartment buildings under plans filed by Eau Claire-based JCap Development & Construction.
The Eau Claire Plan Commission will review JCap’s plans and a related rezoning request on Monday night. The City Council will then vote on the project at its Jan. 12 meeting.
In seeking the city’s approval for its plans, JCap expressed how the two new buildings would fit in with Eau Claire’s long-term vision for the redevelopment of the south side of the 700 block of Water Street.
One goal in city plans is to boost the density along Water Street, which JCap would do by replacing seven existing houses with two new buildings with a combined total of 40 apartments. Dubbed the Water Street Flats, the new buildings would be a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments with parking lots behind them.
“The design and layout of the property is unique to the Eau Claire area,” JCap stated in its application to the city.
The architecture is a mix of traditional and modern, while the interior design was laid out to maximize space and hold construction costs down. Among those design features is private entrances for each unit, as opposed to main entrances that connect to hallways leading to doors for individual apartments. Main-level units have doors that go directly outside while upper and lower apartments have their own staircases leading to their exterior doors.
“The elimination of common hallways lets JCap keep construction costs low and pass the savings on to the student tenants,” JCap wrote, giving a nod to prospective tenants that attend nearby UW-Eau Claire.
JCap has become an increasing presence in Eau Claire’s housing market in recent years by replacing older rental houses with larger multifamily buildings in the Historic Randall Park Neighborhood.
However, the neighborhood association sent a letter to the city in opposition to JCap’s plan to redevelop the 700 block of Water Street.
“While this project is more in line with what the neighborhood is looking for, especially with units that are one and two bedrooms, overall, this project misses the mark,” association President Lauren Lierman wrote, noting the group took a vote against the plans.
The primary point of contention was parking, which the neighborhood said is inadequate based on the anticipated occupancy of the buildings.
Among all the apartments in the two buildings, there will be a total of 64 bedrooms. JCap’s plan shows parking lots with a total of 50 spots behind the buildings, including a few handicap-accessible stalls.
Being on a bus route and providing bicycle racks does give JCap’s plans a break on the city’s parking requirements, but those standards say there should still be at least 54 stalls.
JCap is asking the city to excuse it from making the parking lots bigger, citing the prevalence of on-street parking used by people who currently live on Water Street.
“The amount of street parking this far west from campus has always remained abundant, and will be more than adequate to absorb the increased density,” the developer wrote to the city.
Lierman’s letter also listed other neighborhood concerns with JCap’s plan, including affordability of the new apartments, the large size of the buildings when compared to remaining homes on the block and two big drainage ponds in the plans that are needed to handle rain runoff.
JCap cited a document created by the city and neighborhood as support for its designs for the new buildings.
“Water Street Flats will help achieve the desired outcome of the Randall Park Neighborhood’s comprehensive plan,” the developer wrote.
A memo from city planning staff stated that the plan encourages redevelopment on the 700 block of Water Street with buildings that have first-floor commercial space and apartments on upper floors. However, the staff memo notes that the exact concept may not fit the real estate market in that part of Eau Claire, especially due to economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The current state of commercial/office not only along Water Street but throughout the entire community has seen an increase in vacancy with preliminary 2020 numbers around 18% along Water Street corridor,” the memo stated. “Due to COVID-19, this area may see a further increase in commercial vacancy.”
Because of the potential that first-floor storefronts would sit empty there, city planners and neighborhood leaders agreed that buildings with ground floor dwellings instead of shop or office spaces are a good alternative.
The desire to increase housing density along Water Street included in the neighborhood plan is intended to draw more renters to that location. That is seen as a way to allow homes north of Water Street that are currently used as rentals to turn into owner-occupied dwellings to increase homeownership in the neighborhood.
Also during Monday night’s Plan Commission meeting:
• Ashley Rentals LLC is seeking approval of a site plan to build a 12-unit storage warehouse on the vacant lot on the south corner of the intersection of Harlem and Bauer streets.
MENOMONIE — One of three people charged in connection with the death of a Hayward man at a rural Dunn County residence has pleaded not guilty.
Ryan L. Steinhoff, 37, of Birnamwood, entered the plea this week in Dunn County Court.
The victim in the incident has been identified as Bruce E. McGuigan, 37.
Steinhoff will return to court March 5.
Co-defendants Chad D. Turgeson, 37, of Eau Claire, and Ashley A. Gunder, 24, of Saint Anthony, Minn., return to court Jan. 13 and March 5, respectively.
Steinhoff, Turgeson and Gunder brought McGuigan to the Dunn County residence in November, authorities say, where he was beaten and stabbed to death.
Steinhoff, Turgeson and Gunder remain in the Dunn County Jail on $500,000 cash bails.
According to the criminal complaint:
Dunn County sheriff’s deputies were called at 3 p.m. Nov. 17 to a residence on 440th Street in the town of Dunn on a report of a man who was badly injured there.
When deputies arrived at the residence, Gunder exited the home along with a dog.
Gunder said there was a man inside the residence who was believed to be deceased.
Authorities entered the residence and found McGuigan lying on the floor of a bedroom with visible lacerations on his head. A large amount of blood was on his face and the floor.
There was also blood on a white mattress that was propped up vertically against a wall.
Authorities determined McGuigan was dead.
The owner of the residence said his home had been broken into while he was away. He returned to find the three defendants and the victim inside the residence.
The owner was told that McGuigan was taught a lesson after being “schooled.”
Gunder remained at the residence while Turgeson and Steinhoff left.
Gunder told authorities Turgeson killed McGuigan while she was supposed to clean up the mess.
Gunder said she was unaware that McGuigan was going to be killed. But because of how “it all went down,” Gunder believed it was the intention of Turgeson and Steinhoff to kill McGuigan from the start.
Gunder said she and Steinhoff picked McGuigan up in Hayward and brought him to the Dunn County residence.
Gunder said McGuigan was beaten for about 90 minutes. She could hear a body being hit and McGuigan saying that “he didn’t do it.”
As far as she knew, Gunder said, McGuigan was being accused of kidnapping a woman.
Turgeson told authorities McGuigan was beaten by Steinhoff and denied ever kicking or striking the victim during the incident.
Steinhoff admitted to striking McGuigan with his fists and a wooden bed post, and kicking him.
Authorities recovered multiple items at the residence that were believed to have been used during the incident including a hammer, knives and a wooden table leg.
An autopsy performed Nov. 18 at the Ramsey County (Minn.) Medical Examiner’s Office in St. Paul showed McGuigan’s death was caused by multiple blunt force injuries to the head and torso and stab wounds.
The autopsy showed McGuigan was stabbed in the right shoulder and right leg. McGuigan had several rib and facial fractures and a deep laceration to the back of his head. He also had a brain hemorrhage.
CHIPPEWA FALLS — There were 765 felony filings in Chippewa County Court in 2020, nearly identical to the 2019 number, and on par with the five-year average.
Chippewa County District Attorney Wade Newell said it has been an unusual year in courts. Newell not only prosecutes the major offenses filed in the county, he also handles all the sex/sensitive crimes. However, he hasn’t brought a case to trial since the pandemic began, and that is going to create a backlog entering the new year.
“Some of my bigger cases that usually would have gone to trial, the defense attorneys have used the pandemic to push the case off,” Newell said. Usually, defendants enter pleas in the days leading up to a trial, but those have all been pushed back, he said.
In good news, the pandemic allowed Newell’s office to catch up on some old, unfiled cases. Newell’s office is also now fully staffed with five assistant district attorneys, including a new position created by Gov. Tony Evers.
While Newell didn’t have any homicide cases this year — there is one uncharged case stemming from a body found near a farmhouse in Wheaton, and law enforcement is still searching for an unnamed suspect — Newell said there was a much higher-than-usual number of shooting and stabbing incidents this year.
“It seems worse this year than in the past, and that’s troubling,” Newell said.
There were 776 felony filings in 2019, down from the county’s all-time high of 862 in 2018. The five-year average for 2016-2020 is 756 felony filings. However, the five-year average was 531 felony filings for 2011-2015. Newell noted the key difference is the meth epidemic expanding across the county over the past decade. While Newell said meth is definitely a factor in many of the cases his office handles, he wasn’t sure if the meth-related cases were any higher or lower than in recent years.
Eau Claire County saw a 14% decrease in felony cases in 2020. As of Wednesday, 1,589 cases were filed, down from 1,850 in 2019, which is also down from 1,926 filed in 2018.