Hearing set for next Thursday in Green Bay City Hall audio recording lawsuit

'We feel that what we are doing is supported under the law,' city attorney said last week

Green Bay City Hall
Green Bay installed microphones along with security cameras in three hallways in City Hall beginning in late 2021. Photo courtesy of the city of Green Bay

A hearing is set for next Thursday to decide whether Green Bay can continue using audio devices in city hall during an ongoing court battle over the city’s use of recording equipment.

According to the city, it installed audio recording devices in three of the 14 security cameras in public areas of city hall due to safety concerns beginning in late 2021.

The audio devices are located in hallways outside the common council chambers, city clerk’s office and mayor’s office. But signage was not installed until recently.

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The Wisconsin State Senate sued the city and Mayor Eric Genrich over the recordings Tuesday. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the state Senate, state Sen. André Jacque, R-De Pere, a former city council member and an unnamed Jane Doe. The civil complaint argues the city’s use of audio devices violates Wisconsin’s Electronic Surveillance Control Law, the state constitution, the U.S. Constitution and other state statutes.

“The Wisconsin State Senate has an institutional interest in ensuring that municipalities do not act beyond the scope of the authority given to them by the State Legislature,” the lawsuit said.

Ryan Walsh, an attorney representing the state senate and other plaintiffs, filed a separate brief Tuesday asking the court to prevent the city from using the audio devices and refrain from accessing or releasing past recordings while the matter is being litigated.

He said Wednesday that the request was made to prevent people from being harmed while the case was being worked out in court.

“We need to figure out whether the law even permits them to access those recordings or hand them out to the press or whoever might ask them,” Walsh said. “We’ve got a lot of people’s privacy interests and constitutional interests at stake.”

After the devices were brought to the public’s attention at a common council meeting earlier this month, the city installed signage near the recording equipment.

Green Bay has declined to comment on the lawsuit, but City Attorney Joanne Bungert told Wisconsin Public Radio last week that recordings would only be reviewed in the case of an emergency or accident.

“We feel that what we are doing is supported under the law,” she said. “But, obviously, from a communications and transparency perspective, adding the additional signage just provides that additional layer of legal support.”

In a Feb. 10 statement, the city described its security system as “lawful and commonplace,” but critics disagree.

“This is the first time that I’ve heard of microphones in places like hallways in a government building,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, told WPR last week.

Officials in Madison and Milwaukee, the two municipalities in the state bigger than Green Bay, said they were not aware of any audio devices in public areas of their respective city halls.

Jerry Deschane, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said he was unsure how common audio components in security systems were among the state’s cities.

“We don’t keep data on that,” he said. “We do all sorts of informational trainings and write magazines for local governments, and I’ve never heard this discussed.”

The debate around Green Bay’s use of audio devices comes as Mayor Genrich, a former Democratic state representative seeks reelection. He will face former Republican state Rep. Chad Weininger in April.

Editor’s note: The date of the hearing was moved after this story was published.