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State lawmakers introduce legislation restricting audio recordings after Green Bay City Hall controversy

Audio Recording Legislation
Posted at 4:42 PM, Mar 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-16 17:42:18-04

GREEN BAY (NBC 26) — State Representative David Steffen and State Senator Eric Wimberger are introducing legislation to change the process through which state and local officials can record audio. The legislation comes after recent controversy surrounding recording devices at Green Bay City Hall. 

As NBC 26 has previously reported, privacy concerns were raised after microphones were added to Green Bay City Hall's surveillance system between the winter of 2021 and the summer of last year. Last month, a lawsuit was filed by the Wisconsin State Senate against the city and the mayor, questioning the legality of the devices. 

City officials have stated that the microphones were put up due to safety concerns after an increase in police calls at City Hall. Steffen called it a reverse engineered excuse.

"In the 200 hours of committee meetings and board meetings proceeding the discovery, you know how many times Eric Genrich brought up City Hall, staff safety as a concern? Zero. Not a single time," Steffen said at a press conference Thursday.

The devices were taken down after the Common Council voted to remove them and a Brown County judge granted a temporary restraining order directing the microphones be turned off. Now, an outside police department has been referred to investigate the matter. The West Allis Police Department will determine if any criminal charges should be brought against anyone from the city.

"The mayor has in no way taken responsibility for this illegal action," Steffen said. "In fact, he’s been very defiant and if it wasn’t for a court order it would still be going on here in Green Bay.”

Steffen says the goal of this new legislation is to require state and local government to disclose audio surveillance to the public.

“It’s my hope that the city of Green Bay will be the one and only community in the state of Wisconsin to have gone down this dangerous and unfortunate path," Steffen said.

The bill would apply to audio recordings only, not video surveillance. It would also not make changes to Wisconsin's one-party consent requirements, meaning that recordings of open meetings would not be impacted.

The proposal would create several requirements that state and local government would have to meet in order to collect audio recordings:

  • Two-thirds of the governing body must authorize the recordings.
  • That authorization must be renewed once a year.
  • The details regarding the costs, procedures, capabilities and location of the devices must be clearly articulated.
  • Signage must be posted in the area where audio recordings are taking place.
  • The recordings must be retained for no less than 240 days.

Mayor Eric Genrich gave his reaction to the bill Thursday.

“This is yet another example of MAGA Republicans weaponizing government and politicizing public security for their own partisan purposes," Genrich said in a statement. "We’ll continue to ignore political gamesmanship and instead focus on the safety needs of the community and our employees as we work with the Common Council to upgrade security systems and protocols within city facilities."

Steffen says other state legislators will have the chance to co-author or co-sponsor the bill before it will likely be referred to the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice.