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Wisconsin State Senate sues Green Bay and its mayor over audio recording devices in city hall

Lawsuit argues city's use of audio recordings in public spaces is unlawful

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

The Wisconsin State Senate sued the city of Green Bay and Mayor Eric Genrich Tuesday, accusing the city of violating state law by using audio recording devices in city hall.

According to the city, it installed audio recording devices in three of the 14 security cameras in city hall starting in late 2021. The city did not install signage notifying the public they could be recorded.

The civil complaint, filed in Brown County Circuit Court, said the audio devices are located on the ceiling in the hallway outside the clerk’s office on the first floor, on the ceiling outside of city council chambers on the second floor and on the ceiling outside the mayor’s office on the second floor.

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The lawsuit said the mayor and other officials installed “sensitive audio listening devices” that it calls “hallway bugs” without notifying the public or city council members. It said the microphones have recorded numerous private conversations since being installed.

The suit 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. It was filed on behalf of the state Senate; state Sen. André Jacque, R-De Pere; former Green Bay Alder Anthony Theisen and an unidentified Jane Doe. They are asking the court to order the city to disable all audio devices in city hall, prohibit future use of such devices and order the city to destroy past audio recordings.

“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 civil complaint said.

In a separate brief, plaintiffs requested the court issue a temporary order by noon Wednesday that would direct the city to “immediately” stop using audio recording devices in public areas and refrain from accessing or releasing past recordings until the matter has been litigated.

The issue of audio devices in city hall has been hotly debated in Green Bay since Alder Chris Wery spoke about it at a council meeting earlier this month, characterizing the recording as spying.

Last week, City Attorney Joanne Bungert told Wisconsin Public Radio that the city doesn’t plan to remove the recording devices, but will add signage. She said deleting past recordings could violate the state’s open records law because it would be destroying a public record.

In a statement after the council meeting, the city said the devices were installed based on security concerns by staff and the public, and said its “security system is lawful and commonplace.”

The city has since added signage, but its continued use of audio recording devices has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union. City officials say the audio recordings aren’t continually monitored and would only be reviewed if there was an emergency situation or accident.

The debate around Green Bay’s use of audio recording devices comes as Mayor Eric Genrich seeks reelection.

Ryan Walsh, the attorney representing the state Senate, and city officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding the lawsuit.