GREEN BAY, WIS. (WFRV) – After hours of debate on Tuesday night, the Green Bay common council voted to ban audio recording devices in city hall.
The decision came after several amendments to the original motions, rejections of new motions, and at times heated discussions between alders, mayor Eric Genrich, and members of the public.
Alders banned the use of audio recording devices in city hall by a 9-3 vote.
“When people want big government, it begins to whittle away at our rights until there’s nothing left,” said alder Chris Wery. “Somebody has to hold the line.”
“To make the case, the false case, that we are spying on people at city hall, how can you not make that case elsewhere,” said alder Randy Scannell. “The same equipment is used at our police station and in our transit system.”
For the first time, Mayor Genrich spoke publicly about the audio recording devices defending the city’s decision to install them over the last year and a half. He said that he doesn’t think they violate constitutional rights and that the city installed them purely for safety reasons.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” said mayor Genrich. “We could have communicated more effectively, but we did send out an email to over 800 city employees.”
“The security of our staff and members of the public is really what matters in this discussion, it was the sole consideration and reason for the enhanced security system here at city hall,” said Genrich.
Others disagreed including Alder Chris Wery who spoke at length about his displeasure that city officials didn’t notify the common council when they installed the audio recording devices and that it took them until late last month to put up signs telling the public that the audio recording devices are there.
“Mr. mayor, you aren’t above the law,” said Green Bay resident Justin Schmidtka during public comment. “But you have acted above the law in many ways. You can deny it and shake your head, but the reality is the fourth amendment of the constitution is set in stone, written in iron pen.”
Genrich also told the common council that he had never listened to recordings from the audio devices. This was a major concern after city staff revealed he had access to the recordings. City clerk Celestine Jeffreys also said she never listened to the recordings and said she didn’t even know she had access to the recordings until recently.
“It has really upset me more than any other issue I’ve seen in my 20 years on council,” said Wery. “I’m glad that the rest of the council agreed.”
“The audio system was used exclusively to provide needed safety and security measures, it was done with guidance from our police department and at a minimal cost to our taxpayers,” said Genrich.
Common council’s decision comes on the heels of a decision by a Brown County judge to issue a temporary restraining order that will shut off the controversial audio recording devices at Green Bay City Hall and prevent anybody from accessing any recording that comes from those devices until litigation concludes.
“I think that the biggest concern here is that private people who think they are having private conversations have the capacity to be heard by the government,” said Brown County Judge Marc Hammer.
Attorneys representing the City of Green Bay said the audio recording equipment is there for safety reasons after a series of verbal altercations at city hall. They say the altercations happened between members of the public and city employees and in one case members of the public and a journalist.
Lawyers representing the Wisconsin State Senate argued that the audio recording equipment wasn’t even in the spots where the verbal altercations occurred nullifying the argument they were put up for safety reasons.
The lawyers representing the City of Green Bay argued that unless you whisper you should expect that somebody can hear your conversation in a public building.
“We’re not talking about rooms in city hall, bathrooms, we’re talking about two particular hallways, two very public hallways in a very public place,” said the lawyer representing the City of Green Bay.
The lawyer also mentioned that city leaders told all members of the city staff that the audio recording devices were getting installed. They argued it was never a secret that the audio equipment was in the building and said that some people who claimed they didn’t know about the audio recording devices actually did know that they were there.
While city staff received emails about the audio recording devices, common council alders claim they were left in the dark. Many members of the public also had no way of knowing about the audio recording devices until the city posted signs late last month.
The judge disagreed with the city’s argument, saying there is a reasonable expectation for privacy in a public building even if there are signs saying that audio recording equipment is present.
“I don’t know if you lose your right to speak privately if somebody says you lose your right to speak privately,” said Hammer.
“We want the temporary injunction converted to a permanent injunction so they can’t ever do this again,” said the lawyer representing the Wisconsin State Senate.
Lawyers representing the Wisconsin State Senate also pointed out that audio recording devices in city government buildings are rare, citing a single case each in Tennessee and Rhode Island as the only two places where they knew something like this had happened.
Judge Hammer was critical of the timing of the lawsuit saying he doesn’t like that the plaintiffs waited until right before the mayoral election to address these issues.
In a statement, Mayor Genrich said that “I agree with Judge Hammer that the actions of Wisconsin Republicans are political and suspiciously timed. These MAGA Republicans who are aligned with my opponent are making our residents and city staff less safe by prioritizing politics over safety.”
“The truth is that hallway cameras like this have been in place at City buildings for a decade or more as public safety measures supported by the Green Bay Police.”
“As Mayor, I’m proud of the significant progress our City has made over the last four years and will always prioritize making progress for the working families of Green Bay over politics as usual.”
Attorneys for the city said at the hearing last week they wanted to appeal the restraining order that turned off the audio recording devices. However, as of this writing, no appeal has been made.
Judge Hammer also said the real name of a plaintiff in the lawsuit can be revealed. On Tuesday afternoon, Local Five News spoke to one of the attorney’s representing the city who told us that Janet Angus, a local attorney, is ‘Jane Doe.’
“I think a person in our community can assume that when they go into city hall with their partner or their spouse and they’re there for a particular concern, they should be able to have a private conversation without fear that somebody will hear them or use it against them,” said Hammer.
At a parks committee last week, alders voted unanimously to direct city staff to amend ordinances that will pave the way for the removal of audio recording equipment in city hall. That directive then went to common council on Tuesday night.
All recordings associated with the audio recording equipment will get deleted once a lawsuit on the matter gets resolved.
Common council doesn’t have the authority to remove the audio recording devices themselves under current city ordinances which is why they have to vote to direct city staff to amend the ordinances.
The city installed audio recording devices in some sections of city hall in December 2021 and July 2022. Many people, including alders, were unaware of the audio recording devices until the city put up signs last month.
Many people are upset saying the audio recording devices violate their constitutional rights.
“There were concerns about city staff and the public about their personal safety and in response to that, that is why they were put up,” said Green Bay Operations Chief Joe Faulds.
“This super simple explanation wouldn’t fly with a kindergartner, I mean how can you think that legally, ethically that could fly,” said alder Chris Wery.
Alders peppered Faulds and city attorney Joanne Bungert with questions about the audio recording devices. Pending litigation on the matter limited what city staff was able to talk about which caused several contentious exchanges.
They weren’t able to say who made the decision to install the audio recording devices which is a question shared by many.
City purchases that total below $25,000 don’t have to be approved by the city council, which is why alders weren’t in the loop about the recording devices.
Faulds and Bungert said the city sent out an email to all of its employees in December 2021 informing them of the audio recording devices. The email went to all employees with a city email address, but alders said they didn’t receive the email.
Faulds and Bungert also said that the city clerk, mayor, and several other city employees had access to the recordings from the audio devices. They couldn’t say with certainty whether these employees had actually listened to the recordings. They did say that the recordings aren’t continuously monitored.
Mayor Eric Genrich wasn’t at the parks department meeting, something several alders and members of the public at the meeting pointed out.
Genrich has the ability to order the audio devices removed from city hall, but so far has refused to do so.