1000 Friends of Wisconsin Inc. (“1000 Friends”) is an urbanist-environmentalist advocacy group involved in so-called “smart growth” development regulation. The group claims to focus on expanding public transportation and developing environmentalist infrastructure. The organization frequently opposes highway projects in Wisconsin and to advocate for requiring “smart growth” plans for local units of government. In light of the onerous nature of these plans, local officials have often raised concerns regarding the ability to fund the requirements and the difficulty in matching local zoning ordinances with the comprehensive plans.
1000 Friends is a key advocate for environmentalist policies in Wisconsin’s land use and transportation debates. After its founding, 1000 Friends was instrumental in the “Smart Growth for Wisconsin” program, created by 1999 Wisconsin Act 9. The initiative required all local governments to conform to a wide variety of actions related to plans adopted after January 1, 2010. The comprehensive plan elements under the law required that nine elements be addressed in a comprehensive plan, including an explanation of “issues and opportunities”; housing options; transportation plans; utilities and community facilities plans, an emphasis on agricultural, natural, and cultural resources; economic development plans; intergovernmental cooperation; land use restrictions; and the plan for long term implementation.
As a result of this mandate, the Act has faced numerous attempts at repeal, including attempts in 2003 and 2005 at outright repeal and in 2011 an attempt to allow municipalities to repeal comprehensive plans. In 2013, another attempt was made to provide relief to local governments from the comprehensive plan requirements. All of these attempts were opposed by 1000 Friends.
1000 Friends has also opposed highway projects. The most recent and prominent attempt includes the litigation brought by 1000 Friends in opposition to the expansion of Wisconsin State Highway 23 in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. In 2011, 1000 Friends sued the state of Wisconsin in federal court over the project and in 2015 an Eastern District of Wisconsin Judge rejected the finding of necessity for the highway expansion. On appeal, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the state the ability to use federal funds for the project.
An analysis has revealed that the lawsuit brought by the 1000 Friends has already cost the state at least $3.1 million in litigation costs, interim maintenance and safety improvement projects. To assist in the litigation, 1000 Friends retained the services of Dennis Grzezinski, a Milwaukee attorney with a well-known record of stopping highway projects and “conspiring with other troublemakers” in public interest environmental law. Asked why he assists groups like 1000 Friends oppose transportation projects, the attorney noted that “[t]here’s such a disparity in what’s available to those who are richer and whiter and who have cars, and those in our community who are less rich and less white and don’t have cars.” In addition to 1000 Friends, Grzezinksi has opposed transportation projects on behalf of the Milwaukee chapters of the NAACP and the Sierra Club, Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope (a local affiliate of the left-wing religious organizing group Gamaliel Foundation), and Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.
In addition to direct litigation, 1000 Friends also takes aggressive transportation policy positions. In 2013 the group issued an analysis detailing 10 ways that 1000 Friends would prefer the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to employ its resources. Included on the top-ten list were claims that as a society “we are driving less” and that “young people are ditching cars.” Specifically, 1000 Friends argued “many young people [are] making a conscious decision to avoid driving to protect the environment and to save money.” The organization also included in the 2013 report a direct call to increase the gas tax.
In the process of advocating for less transportation options for Wisconsin residents, 1000 Friends has claimed “public transportation is reaching record levels in Wisconsin.” The left-leaning fact checking service Politifact Wisconsin rated the claim false; in fact, Politifact noted statistics showed the exact opposite.
Federal tax returns filed by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin in 2016 showed revenue of $310,293 and expenditures of $283,958. The 2016 revenue was well below the 2015 amount of $502,710, representing a 38% drop in funding. As a result, the expenditures of 1000 Friends fell from the previous year’s $534,810, a nearly 47% decrease. Compensation of current officers, directors, trustees, and key employees accounted for $66,164 of the organization’s expenditures, in addition to $79,166 in other salaries and wages. Fees for services included $41,439 in legal expenses.
The only individuals listed as receiving compensation from 1000 Friends were executive director Deb Nemeth, who collected compensation of $60,927 and $2,132 in other compensation, and the immediate past executive director, Steve Hiniker, who collected $3,000 of compensation and $105 of other compensation. The other board members and directors did not receive any compensation.
The organization has received funding from the left-leaning Joyce Foundation, the environmentalist-aligned Rockefeller Family Fund, and the donor-advised fund provider Greater Milwaukee Foundation.
Executive director Deb Nemeth, one of the group’s founding board members, leads 1000 Friends. Nemeth previously worked for Les Aspin, a former U.S. Congressman who served as Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration.
In addition to her role with 1000 Friends, Nemeth serves on the Steering Committee of A Greater Madison Vision, which is an arm of the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission. The Commission was created by a 2007 executive order of former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D).
The previous executive director of 1000 Friends, Steve Hiniker, remains active in the organization. He previously served as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Citizens Utility Board, Environmental Policy Director for the City of Milwaukee, and as a staff member to former Wisconsin state Senator Joe Strohl (D-Racine). Among other initiatives while leading 1000 Friends, Hiniker partnered with Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk (D) on a “Great Neighborhoods” book to support environmentalist living.
Ashwat Narayanan serves as 1000 Friends’ director of transportation policy. Narayanan has advocated for stopping all Wisconsin road projects.
Board of Directors
1000 Friends also features a nine-member board of directors. The current president is John Clancy, a shareholder and member of the environmental and energy law practice group in the Milwaukee office of Godfrey & Kahn. He emphasizes his expertise as a member of the firm’s climate change, renewable energy and sustainable development practice.
Jennifer Rothstein serves as secretary. In addition to her role with 1000 Friends, she serves as an Ozaukee County Supervisor and volunteers for the Friends of Cedarburg Bog and the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. Jean Wells serve as treasurer.
The remaining board members include Bill Berry, a columnist for the left-wing Madison-based newspaper Capital Times and author of Come Together: Wisconsin’s DDT Battles and the Modern Environmental Movement, published in 2013; Steve Born, Professor Emeritus and former Chair of the Urban and Regional Planning Department at the University of Wisconsin; Lynn Hobbie, who also serves on the Wisconsin Public Utilities Institute as well as the Madison Mayor’s Energy Task Force; Jim Matson, an attorney for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and policy committee member for the Madison Clean Lakes Alliance; Tom Mlada, the former mayor of the City of Port Washington and currently the Executive Director of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust; and Kine Torinus, the past President of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust.