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Privacy concerns arise over recording devices at Green Bay City Hall

Posted at 5:23 PM, Feb 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-10 16:52:02-05

GREEN BAY (NBC 26) — Concerns about recording devices installed at city hall were brought up in this week's city council meeting by Green Bay alderman Chris Wery.

Wery said these devices are recording conversations of visitors, residents and employees without their consent.

"City council nor the public was advised of this spying, and not even simple signage warning of the intrusion was put in place," Wery said. "Nothing."

Wery said he was made aware of the issue when a resident, who had an exchange with city staff, was given an audio file of the conversation and was surprised.

The devices are found on the ceilings at city hall, and Wery said the recorded conversations are stored and can be requested by city hall through open records.

During the meeting, Wery asked Mayor Eric Genrich if he would disable the devices, and Genrich replied "No."

Republican state Sen. Andre Jacque released a statement on Thursday echoing Wery's concerns.

He stated he was "stunned" to learn about the devices at city hall, and they're comparable to what was expected in the "old Soviet Union."

"It's difficult to overstate just how egregiously and jaw-droppingly brazen a violation of civil rights and exposure to criminal and civil liability it is for the Mayor to greenlight snooping on his own constituents without cause," Jacque wrote in his statement.

Jacque said he put out the statement because he believes city hall is violating the public's trust and the law.

"The fact that this basically occurred behind the scenes without notification, without any transparency...I think should concern a lot of people," Jacque said.

Both Jacque and Wery said they are planning to take further action by discussing the issue with more people and continuing to ask questions until the devices are disabled or a security policy is put in place.

"It's disgusting, and Big Brother is listening," Wery said. "We the people are not amused."

NBC 26 reached out to the mayor's office multiple times, but Genrich was unable to comment on Thursday. NBC 26 also reached out to Green Bay City Attorney Joanne Bungert, who was unavailable for comment on Thursday.

On Friday, the City of Green Bay published a statement on its website:

The City of Green Bay is focused on maintaining a safe and secure environment for the public and for city staff within our City Hall. Following complaints from City staff and members of the public, the Green Bay City Administration felt it necessary to enhance the security system on the first and second floors of City Hall between Winter 2021 and Summer 2022.

In the interest of sharing factual information, and to correct any misinformation that may have been spread to the public, we share the following facts regarding security at City Hall:

  • This type of security system is lawful and commonplace. A memo from the Wisconsin Legislative Council, dated February 7, 2023, did not “detail serious legal concerns” but rather noted that security cameras with audio capabilities do not violate Wisconsin’s Electronic Surveillance Control Law (WESCL).
  • There has been similar technology in place in the Green Bay Police Department’s lobby for nearly a decade. The City currently has 77 security cameras as a part of our transit system – the buses have had video and audio components for nearly 20 years. The Metro Transit lobby has had audio/video monitoring since 2009.
  • As is common knowledge, security cameras have become an integral part of public safety across the country. There are 14 cameras located in multiple public areas of City Hall, including entrances, exits, and hallways. Three of those cameras, located only in the hallways of the first and second floors, have audio capability.
  • This is not police surveillance. However, Shift Command at the Green Bay Police Department has access to this feed and several others in the community for the purposes of responding to an emergency. 
  • Footage is not continuously monitored by City staff. After the fact, video and audio has been reviewed and proved valuable in gathering information about accidents, altercations, and damage to property at City Hall.
  • Signage is not required in these circumstances, but City Administration has decided to install signage at City Hall, within the Metro Transit lobby, and in the lobby of the Green Bay Police Department in the near future.
City of Green Bay