In the wake of Green Bay’s city hall bugging scandal, two Green Bay-area lawmakers are introducing a bill creating clear requirements for government officials to collect audio recordings.
The measure, authored by State Representative David Steffen (R-Howard) and State Senator Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), would establish “stringent requirements” should local or state government officials feel the need to audio record in public buildings.
Specifically, two-thirds of the governing body would need to authorize collecting audio recordings and the authorization would need to be renewed each year.
“This legislation clarifies what types of oral communication have a high expectation of privacy, and creates the speech protections people thought they already had,” Wimberger said in a press release.
In Green Bay, city council members say they were in the dark about the decision by Mayor Eric Genrich and other city officials to install at least three audio recording devices in city hall.
Records obtained by The Wisconsin 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.
The State Senate filed a lawsuit against the city alleging use of the audio recording equipment to monitor conversations is a violation of the Wisconsin Electronic Surveillance Control Law. A Brown County judge earlier this month issued a temporary injunction demanding the city shut down the bugs while a lawsuit proceeds.
Green Bay City Council members then voted to ban audio recording devices in city hall. Exceptions include police officer body cams.
“When people want big government, it begins to whittle away at our rights until there’s nothing left,” said City Council Member Chris Wery, among 10 of 12 alders to vote for the ban. “Somebody has to hold the line.”
Nine council members voted to destroy existing audio recordings.
Genrich and other city officials insist they were within their constitutional rights to install the microphones. They say they did so after some city employees received some verbal threats.
But privacy rights experts say the city is walking on a slippery slope, particularly after city officials failed to alert council members or the general public about their operation.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Genrich said at last week’s council meeting. “We could have communicated more effectively, but we did send out an email to over 800 city employees.”
The lawmakers’ bill aims to ensure privacy protections statewide. City officials looking to install recording devices on city property would have to detail the costs, procedures, locations, and other important information, and that information must be available to the public. Governments would have to put up signs wherever audio recordings are in use and all recordings must be retained for 240 days.
Wery and others have voiced concerns that Genrich, a highly partisan Democrat, may have used the recording devices to monitor his political enemies.
Genrich 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.
“People were rightly upset when they found out their conversations were being secretly recorded,” Steffen said. “The mayor’s actions left community members feeling stripped of their privacy rights and wondering what personal conversations might have been collected.”
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.