Village engineer named to key DNR post
Eric Nitschke to lead Southeastern Region
Village of Sussex - Village Engineer Eric Nitschke's dream has come true after news of being hired as the state Department of Natural Resources Director of the Southeastern Region, a position to be considered by some experts as one of the DNR's most influential positions.
Nitschke announced at the Oct. 11 Village Board meeting his plans to accept the position. The promotion will elevate Nitschke, a 1999 civil engineering graduate of the University of Madison-Milwaukee, from the director of a public works department with approximately 20 full- and part-time employees in a village with a population of about 11,000 to the director of the one of the DNR's most populous and controversial regions that includes the seven-county Milwaukee metro area.
Nitschke said in an interview after the board meeting that he is aware of the challenges he is likely to face in the politically and environmental charged position as director of what has become one of the department's most controversial regions. Because of the number of lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands in Lake Country, the director of the Southeast Region of DNR can significantly impact almost every municipality and its citizens in the region.
For example, the agency's southeast region has told the City of Delafield how it can dredge Lake Nagawicka and repair the St. John's Dam. It recommended the Town of Lisbon be fined for building a fire station next to a wetland. It has insisted on the construction of public boat launch on nearly every lake in the region as well as the removal of the infamous Funk's Dam on the Oconomowoc River.
Two other regional director appointments announced last week by DNR were individuals who were steeped in experience with the agency and key executive positions in state government. In addition to his professional background, a department news release described Nistschke as "a newcomer to DNR."
"It is the first time I can ever remember someone from outside of DNR being appointed regional director," said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, who has decades of experience with the agency, including serving as secretary during the administration of former Governor Tommy Thompson.
Nitschke's appointment reflects Governor Scott Walker and DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp's plans to reshape the regional director position and the operating philosophy of the agency, according to Deputy Secretary Matt Moroney, former executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association of Greater Milwaukee.
"We think Eric brings a great deal to the department with his unique skill sets," said Moroney who added Nitschke "rose to the top" during an extensive selection process that included interviews with Stepp, Moroney, a member of the DNR board, and an incumbent regional director.
Nitschke served as a staff engineer at HNTB Corporation in Milwaukee and served as division engineer for stormwater for the City of New Berlin before becoming Director of Public Works and Village Engineer for Sussex in October of 2007.
In addition to supervising employees and operations at the DPW, Nitschke is also responsible for "assisting residents, business owners and developers in solving engineering related problems," according to the village's website.
Nitschke's experience as a municipal engineer who has worked with private developers "brings a different perspective" to the agency, according to Moroney.
Moroney said the agency wants it regional directors to "reach out" to business owners thinking of expanding or locating in Wisconsin, and assist them through the permit process to make sure that environmental issues and other concerns can be addressed early on in the planning process to avoid delays and unnecessary costs.
He said some of the supervisory and decision-making responsibilities formerly held by the regional directors will be shifted to the agency's central office in Madison.
During his campaign, Walker was critical of the agency and promised to make it more business-friendly without compromising the environment.
"I will make sure the DNR treats Wisconsinites like customers, not criminals," Walker said.
But, Meyer believes the reshaping of the regional director position may be a mistake.
"It is going to put too many decisions on the Secretary's desk in Madison," he said.
Regional directors were responsible for resolving and balancing the differences among agency staff scientists, environmental groups, and commerce and industry regarding the interpretation of agency polices, regulations and permits, according to Meyer, and some of those conflicts are greatest in the southeast region, he added.
Environmental lawyer Don Gallo, who also has years of experience dealing with the DNR, said Nitschke should be given a chance to succeed.
"I like the fact he is an outsider and perhaps can work with the current WDNR team to do great things. The Southeast Region staff are well experienced and very sharp. The combination could be good for the region," said Gallo of the Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren law firm.
Nitschke said working for the DNR has been a lifelong dream for him. He said his resignation is effective Oct. 28 and plans to assume his new position with DNR on Oct. 31. Melissa Weiss, assistant Village Administrator, will serve as interim public works director until a new village engineer is hired, according to Village Administrator Jeremy Smith.
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