Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

La Follette alums collaborate on California eminent domain reform

Alumni Shelley Curran (class of 1998) and Peter Detwiler (class of 1972) shared staffing duties for an eminent domain reform bill that passed the California Legislature in 2006.

Curran advises the state Senate president pro-tem on judicial and public safety policy issues, and Detwiler has staffed the Senate Local Government Committee since 1982.

California Senate staffers and La Follette School alumni Shelley Curran (class of 1998) and Peter Detwiler work around the corner from each other.

The two figured out they had a master's degree program in common through a mutual friend, Nettie Sabelhaus, another California Senate staffer.

"Shelley and I knew of each other, of course, because our offices are just around the corner from each other in the Capitol," Detwiler says. "Nettie has her BA in poli sci from UW, and she realized that Shelley and I also had the Madison connection."

Given the 26-year gap in their graduation dates, the two find that their experiences were different. When Detwiler arrived in Madison from California in 1971, the La Follette School's precursor, the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, was a relatively new effort. The curriculum was simpler, just 30 units and no requirements for internships or a thesis, he says.

By the time Curran enrolled, the La Follette Institute was on the cusp of becoming a full-fledged school within the College of Letters and Science. Her coursework, she says, emphasized extensive group projects every semester.

Detwiler and Curran say that kind of collaboration is essential to their work in the California State Senate, especially with policy setting.

As for the new eminent domain law, it boosts fairness to private property owners when public officials use eminent domain to condemn property. One way it does this is to allow the private owners to lease back their condemned property until the public agency is ready to use the property. This makes it harder for public entities to switch the declared public use after condemning the private property. A second way it increases fairness is to require public officials to sell the condemned property back to the earlier owners if there is no public use.

This legislative response to worries about eminent domain abuses is milder than the constitutional initiative that failed in a close referendum in November, Detwiler says.

Curran and Detwiler both had roots in California, which drew them back there after they graduated.

"Although I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, I'm from a longtime California family, so I headed for California after my time in Madison," Curran says.

The year Detwiler spent in Madison is the only time he has not lived in California, he says. "A long muggy Midwestern summer and a long cold Midwestern winter combined to convince me that I really was a California kid after all."