Green Bay City Council to Take up Ban on Secret Recording Devices in City Hall

After the Park Committee voted unanimously last week to remove audio recording devices from Green Bay City Hall, the full City Council is expected to take up the issue at Tuesday evening’s meeting.

The action item comes after a Brown County judge issued a temporary injunction demanding the city shut down the bugs while a lawsuit proceeds.

The council is slated to hear a report from the committee and plans to take up a motion to create a policy to remove all audio recording systems at the building, to amend any ordinances necessary to do so, and to destroy all audio recordings after the lawsuit has been resolved.

Council members also will receive an update on the suit filed by the Wisconsin State Senate alleging city officials violated state law. Brown County Judge Marc Hammer late Thursday granted the injunction, ordering the city to immediately pause its bugging program.

Alderman Chris Wery, chair of the Park Committee, believes the ruling is correct, protecting citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.

“…[A]t my committee we voted 4-0 to permanently remove the audio recording devices and the full council will vote on that [on Tuesday]. We will also be working on a city wide surveillance policy to prevent this sneaky spying in the future. Council oversight is needed,” Wery said. “We also will be addressing the lawsuit and unknown liabilities the mayor has exposed the city to.”

Hammer ordered Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich and the city not to disseminate or access any audio recordings produced by the surveillance devices, and he placed all recordings under seal of the court.

The lawsuit alleges the installation of secret recording devices installed at city hall is a violation of the Wisconsin Electronic Surveillance Control Law.

Plaintiffs include Green Bay-area State Senator Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), former City Council member Anthony Theisen, and an anonymous female complainant. They claim to be among the many who have had private conversations in the hallways of city hall “since the mayor secretly installed these audio surveillance devices,” the lawsuit states.

As The Wisconsin Daily Star first reported, Green Bay city officials have installed at least three audio recording devices in City Hall — without notifying the City Council or the public.

Records obtained by The Daily Star show the audio equipment was installed last year — two devices on the second floor outside the council chamber and the mayor’s office, and one on the first floor outside the clerk’s office.

Genrich and the city’s legal department have defended the use of the listening devices, asserting they were installed after city staff were involved in threatening interactions with citizens. They claim use of the monitoring equipment is legal because they are located in public spaces.

In a court filing, the city alleges the audio monitoring equipment was installed after three people “verbally assaulted” a city staff member in the council chamber. The brief also claims a Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter was “isolated, threatened and verbally assaulted by members of the public” in a hallway following a council meeting.

Genrich and the city attorney attempt to attack the credibility of the plaintiffs in the filing, arguing that none claims the city has “actually invaded their privacy by recording their conversations in City Hall or threatens to do so anytime soon.” The plaintiffs made clear in the lawsuit that their rights could well have been violated. They do not know for sure if they were recorded because the city has been secretly monitoring conversations.

“The Mayor’s decision to bug City Hall thus violates numerous laws and constitutional provisions that protect the public against such intrusive government surveillance,” the lawsuit alleges. “And to the extent that the City’s recent policy of snooping on its citizens has now been publicly disclosed, it unconstitutionally chills core protected speech.”

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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Eric Genrich” by Mayor of Green Bay. Background Photo “Brown County Courthouse” by Tony Webster. CC BY-SA 2.0.


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