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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge orders Wisconsin mayor to disable recording devices at city hall

A state lawmaker and others suing the mayor say the devices violate constitutional safeguards and illegally invade the public’s privacy without their knowledge.

GREEN BAY, Wis. (CN) — The mayor of Green Bay, Wisconsin, was given until the end of the day to disable three audio recording devices secretly installed at city hall, per a judge’s ruling on Thursday, in a class action lawsuit the mayor faces over devices his lawyers claim were installed for added security in reaction to incidents in which city staff, a journalist and an absentee voter were verbally assaulted by members of the public.

Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich, a Democrat, and the city of Green Bay were sued in late February by the Wisconsin State Senate and state Senator Andre Jacque, a Republican whose district includes Green Bay, over the installation of microphone surveillance equipment in some of the hallways of Green Bay City Hall, which they say was done surreptitiously sometime in the last 18 months without getting the approval of any legislative body or alerting the public.

Court documents explain that news of the devices broke at a meeting of the Green Bay Common Council on Feb. 7, and that city attorney Joanne Bungert further explained their existence upon media requests for more information after the meeting. Bungert described their installation as a collaborative effort between multiple agencies, though the plaintiffs’ filings claim the stories detailing the devices’ provenance have been inconsistent.

The complaint claims such surveillance violates the Wisconsin Electronic Surveillance Control Law, as well as constitutional rights involving unreasonable searches and seizures and protected speech.

After a hearing on Thursday, Brown County Circuit Court Judge Marc Hammer entered a temporary injunction ordering the recording devices removed from Green Bay City Hall by 5 p.m. Hammer also restricted the defendants from disseminating or accessing any recordings produced by the equipment and ordered all existing recordings to be filed with the court under seal, placing them off-limits to anyone without the court’s permission.

“This is a great day for the Constitution,” said Ryan Walsh, a Madison-based attorney representing the plaintiffs from Eimer Stahl, a boutique firm with offices in Madison, Chicago and San Jose. “The people of Green Bay have their city hall back.”

Also among the plaintiffs are Anthony Theisen, a former member of the Green Bay Common Council, and an anonymous attorney, both of whom believe they had private conversations captured by the devices, making them “reluctant to return to city hall and speak freely,” according to the complaint.

Adding to the injuries, the lawsuit says, is the fact that the recordings — which could include confidential political discussions, conversations falling under attorney-client privilege and talk involving sensitive personal information — were at least once made publicly available via open records requests and are reviewable by the Green Bay police and the city’s legal department.

All this amounts to what the plaintiffs’ brief requesting an injunction to disable the recordings variously calls an “outrageous decision to eavesdrop on council members and [Genrich’s] constituents” and the city’s “recent policy of snooping on its citizens” in an act of “intrusive government surveillance.” The ACLU concurred that the recording devices present a “very serious privacy invasion,” the complaint states.

What the complaint called the “hallway bugs” were placed on the ceiling in the hallways outside the first-floor office of the city clerk and the second-floor common council chambers and mayor’s office. Signage alerting the public about the devices was eventually posted at city hall in mid-February after the state senate notified Genrich they were unlawful.

The plaintiffs’ brief described this remedy as wholly inadequate, going so far as to compare the devices to the nefarious totalitarian actions of Big Brother in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”

“Residents of Oceania may know that the Party listens to their every word, but the Ministry of Truth’s surveillance is still an unmistakable invasion of privacy." (Emphasis in original).

Kyle Engelke, an attorney with the Madison office of Stafford Rosenbaum representing Genrich and Green Bay, could not be immediately reached for comment after business hours on Thursday. The press office at Green Bay City Hall also could not be immediately reached.

Engelke’s brief in opposition to the injunction offered a much more innocuous explanation for the devices connected to security and public safety, in addition to arguing the plaintiffs lack standing and have not articulated any imminent and irreparable harm.

The filing lays out that the devices were installed specifically in response to three incidents across 2021 and 2022 in which city staff, a journalist and an absentee voter were threatened or verbally assaulted in city hall.

In one incident, a city attorney staff member was verbally assaulted in the city council chambers by three members of the public to the point that the staff member feared for her safety. In another, a reporter with the Green Bay Press Gazette was “isolated, threatened and verbally assaulted” in a hallway by members of the public who “stood over her, insulted her, claimed that she should not be in the city, questioned her education and made other degrading remarks,” the defendants’ brief says, leading the paper to pull the reporter from covering city hall.

The third incident involved an elderly woman who was verbally assaulted by a member of the public while she was trying to deliver an absentee ballot to the clerk’s office. The member of the public entered the clerk’s office and berated city staff about the absentee ballot in the voter’s presence.

“The assault caused the voter to cry and visibly shake to the point that staff needed to escort her to her vehicle,” the defendants’ brief says.

The recording devices, which are visible, also work inconsistently because they are triggered by physical motion, the brief claims, adding that no one with the police or at city hall regularly monitors them.

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Categories / Government, Law, Regional

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