The city of Green Bay is doubling down on its legally dubious policy on bugging City Hall, and it appears a lawsuit is in the offing.
In response to a warning letter from the Wisconsin State Senate, Green Bay’s Chief of Operations Joseph Faulds has issued a statement asserting the city will continue its audio surveillance, but it will provide notice about the recording devices.
“In the interest of transparency, the City will be taking steps to provide notice at City facilities with similar security systems,” Faulds wrote.
As The Wisconsin Daily Star first reported, an attorney representing the Senate sent the letter this week to Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich demanding he immediately disable the audio recording devices planted in city hall. The letter also demands the city destroy all illegally obtained audio recordings.
“This surveillance activity is not only disturbing. It is unlawful,” writes Ryan J. Walsh, the attorney representing the lawmakers.
The demand letter asks Genrich to provide “adequate assurances” by 5 p.m. Tuesday that all audio surveillance in City Hall has ceased. That deadline came and went. All “illicitly obtained recordings” must be destroyed by 3 p.m. Friday, the letter demands.
Green Bay city officials effectively told Walsh and the Senate to go pound sand.
Walsh declined to comment, but it’s clear the impasse is heading to court.
“I think the notice that was served upon the city is basically leaving no other option than some sort of legal remedy for the city to address the very serious statutory and constitutional issues that the administration refuses to address,” said Green Bay-area State Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere).
As The 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. The mayor has said the city would not remove the devices.
“City Hall’s security system is lawful and commonplace,” Faulds said in the statement. “The Wisconsin Senate mischaracterizes the audio devices as ‘extremely sensitive audio-recording devices’ in order to raise questions about its legality.” He added that the devices are “limited” to public spaces in City Hall “without any continuous monitoring by City staff.”
But the city’s attorney and Green Bay’s Police Chief have previously stated the audio recordings are monitored by police.
The demand letter attempts to disabuse city officials of the notion that there is no expectation of privacy in a public building.
“These hallway bugs are placed in areas where members of the public—attorneys and their clients, constituents discussing political issues, journalists conducting off-the-record conversations, and our colleagues in the Senate, to name just a few groups—retreat to discuss matters discreetly,” the letter states.
More so, the letter notes, the public was not informed of the surveillance equipment when it was installed and that the Green Bay city government has not been informing those entering City Hall about the audio surveillance.
“No sign anywhere had warned that audio recording devices are deployed throughout City Hall. Nevertheless, members of the public have been subject to its audio surveillance,” the warning letter states.
Sources say the city’s failure to put up signs runs counter to the recommendations in the manual from the very recording devices it has installed.
The city, in fact, is in “clear violation” of the Wisconsin Electronic Surveillance Control Law, which makes it a Class H felony to intentionally intercept oral conversations, Walsh asserts. He details the statute and the implications in the warning letter.
“While vague assurances of coming signage have been made in essentially what is an admission of guilt, their failure to mitigate or even apologize for the illicit recording that has already gone on is appalling,” Jacque said.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington D.C., told Fox 11 the lack of notice is very concerning.
“To have a recording device that people might not be aware of, at such a location, is a serious threat to privacy and completely unjustified,” he said.
Stanley said Green Bay’s installation of audio recording devices in City Hall is the first he’s heard of such a practice.
As The Tennessee Star reported last week, listening devices have been installed in areas around the Nashville District Attorney’s office. DA officials insisted the devices — capable of picking up conversations of employees and visitors without prior warning — are a necessary part of office security. The District Attorney’s office added that “there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for conversations in public places.”
East Providence, RI, also took public heat — including criticism from the ACLU – after it installed similar recording devices in its city clerk’s office. In that case, the city did at least put up signs notifying the public of the recording equipment.
Some are concerned that Genrich, a highly partisan Democrat, is monitoring his political enemies.
The mayor was a central figure in the Zuckerbucks controversy in which Wisconsin’s five largest cities took in millions of dollars in so-called “safe election” grants from liberal groups funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. An investigation by Wisconsin Spotlight showed the 2020 grant funding from the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) came with long-time Democratic Party operatives and liberal activists intricately involved in the administration of the 2020 presidential election in Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Racine, and Green Bay.
In Green Bay, an operative was found to have the keys to the room holding the boxes of absentee ballots and had offered to work with elections officials to “cure” or correct absentee ballots with missing information. Green Bay’s city clerk at the time resigned, citing election integrity concerns about the activists and mayor’s office.
CTCL handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in Zuckerberg funded grants, with the brunt of the money going to Democrat-led cities in battleground 2020 states.
Green Bay’s City Clerk Celestine Jeffreys, who was Genrich’s top aide at the time of the 2020 election scandal, has had what many describe as a confrontational relationship with Republican Party election observers. She has been accused of locking out observers from monitoring ballot counts.
Jacque said the bugging scandal “reinforces the idea that the Genrich administration has seen city facilities and apparatus as their playthings to do with whatever they choose, regardless of constitutional concerns.”
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Joseph Faulds” by Joseph Faulds. Background Photo “Green Bay City Hall” by Royalbroil. CC BY-SA 2.5.