GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – A Brown County judge issued 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 say 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 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 say they are in the process of appealing the restraining order that turned off the audio recording devices.
Judge Hammer also said the real name of a plaintiff in the lawsuit can be revealed. Right now she’s identified under the name ‘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.
The lawsuit is one of two efforts to get rid of the audio recording devices in Green Bay City Hall.
At a parks committee meeting Wednesday night, 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. All recordings associated with the audio recording equipment will get deleted once a lawsuit on the matter gets resolved.
Common council will vote on these measures at their meeting on Tuesday. 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 meeting on Wednesday night, 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.