The installation of audio recording devices at Green Bay’s City Hall without the general knowledge of the public is “unsettling,” more than likely illegal and an “egregious breach of privacy,” Green Bay-area lawmakers tell The Wisconsin Daily Star.
“Whether this is sheer incompetence or malevolence, it might be impossible to overstate just how jaw-droopingly brazen a violation of civil rights [this is],” said State Senator Andre Jacque (R-De Pere.) He added that Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich and other city officials have exposed the city and themselves to “criminal and civil liabilities” for “snooping on citizens.”
As first reported by The Daily Star, Records obtained by The Star News Network show Green Bay city officials installed at least three audio recording devices in City Hall — without notifying the City Council or the public.
Alderman Chris Wery, who represents Green Bay’s 8th District, described the secret recordings as the kind of “Big Brother stuff” found in a George Orwell novel.
“This is an astonishing affront to people’s privacy rights,” Wery told The Daily Star in an interview Tuesday afternoon, hours before the council discussed the recording devices.
Wery wants a city committee to investigate the decisions of city officials involving the audio equipment.
Green Bay City Attorney Joanne Bungert defended the placement of the three microphones installed last year — two on the second floor outside the council chamber and the mayor’s office, and one on the first floor outside the clerk’s office. Bungert told Fox11 News in an email the recording devices were added after numerous complaints of “threatening interactions” by staff and members of the public. She confirmed that live feeds are monitored by the Green Bay Police Department Shift Command office.
The city attorney also claims that the location of audio and video surveillance equipment is public information and has been shared publicly.
But Wery and others note there are no signs posted at City Hall and there have been no communications alerting the City Council and the public to the recording devices.
State Representative David Steffen (R-Green Bay) said he finds it “unsettling and absolutely unbelievable that our mayor has been secretly surveilling Green Bay residents and council members.”
“I personally have had numerous confidential, private discussions in City Hall with constituents, crime victims, government employees. Is all of their information now on secret tapes?” the lawmaker said.
City officials say because the recording devices are located in public places the public has no right to privacy. But that’s not necessarily true under Wisconsin law, particularly as it relates to the reasonable expectation of privacy.
Jacque asked the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council to provide its opinion on the legality of public recordings under state law.
“In a setting like a governmental building, factors that are likely to provide a person with a reasonable expectation of privacy include speaking at a low volume, away from passersby, and in a small group of people who are unlikely to report what was said,” the updated Legislative Council memo states.
Wisconsin is what is commonly known as a one-party consent state, meaning a person who is a party to a wire, electronic or oral communication, or who has obtained prior consent from one party, can legally record and divulge the contents of the communication, unless he does so for the purpose of committing a criminal act.
In the case of the Green Bay recording devices, it doesn’t appear that any of the individuals involved in an audio-captured conversation are aware they have been recorded.
As the Legislative Council notes in its memo, … [T]he failure to post a sign notifying people of the recording may lead a court to conclude that the parties were not provided with ‘meaningful notice’ and thus did not impliedly consent to the recording. Without any sort of ‘meaningful notice’ that recording may take place, a party has not provided implied consent.”
If Green Bay City officials are found to have violated the state’s recording consent law, Jacque said they could be a Class H felony, punishable by up to six years in state prison, a maximum fine of $10,000, or both.
“It’s just stunning anyone could think this is a good idea,” the senator said.
Brown County District Attorney David Lasee did not return a request seeking comment on whether the DA’s office intends to file charges in the Green Bay matter.
Genrich told Fox 11 there is “no basis” for removing the recording devices.
“These are pretty standard surveillance systems that we have here in order to keep the public safe while they’re on public property here,” the mayor said.
But as The Daily Star reported, a similar situation in East Providence, RI, last year got the American Civil Liberties Union involved. The Wisconsin ACLU did not return a call seeking comment on the Green Bay’s recording devices.
Some fear the audio equipment was installed to snoop on political enemies. Wery and other sources who have battled with the liberal mayor and his city clerk have their suspicions.
Genrich, a highly partisan Democrat, 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 nationally, 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.
Steffen said it’s difficult to know intent, but the actions of Green Bay city officials are even more difficult to understand in a free country.
“This conjures up troubling images and thoughts of every American’s greatest fears that our government is surveilling our thoughts and discussions,” the lawmaker said. “This is something we would expect in North Korea.”
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Eric Genrich” by Eric Genrich. Background Photo “Green Bay Skyline” by Chris Rand. CC BY-SA 4.0.