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Green Bay alder asks for surveillance policy after microphones installed at city hall

Green Bay Alderperson Chris Wery talks about privacy concerns at city hall during a February 7, 2023 city council meeting. (WLUK/Mike Gard)
Green Bay Alderperson Chris Wery talks about privacy concerns at city hall during a February 7, 2023 city council meeting. (WLUK/Mike Gard)
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WLUK) -- Privacy concerns are being raised at Green Bay's city hall after city council members discovered microphones have been added to the building's surveillance system.

“City council nor the public was advised of this spying and not even a simple signage warning of the intrusion was put in place,” said Ald. Chris Wery, who raised the concern at Tuesday night’s full council meeting.

Green Bay City Attorney Joanne Bungert says microphones were added to the first and second floor hallways of city hall, outside of the clerk’s office, council chambers, and the mayor’s office between spring 2021 and summer 2022.

“City Hall has had a surveillance system for many years and surveillance needs at City Hall have evolved in recent years due to safety concerns related to multiple situations where staff and members of the public reported threatening interactions,” Bungert wrote to FOX 11 in an email. “The location of all City Hall video and audio surveillance cameras is public information and has been shared publicly. Live feeds are monitored by the Green Bay Police Department Shift Command office.”

“It's disgusting, and Big Brother is listening, and we the people are not amused,” said Wery during the council meeting.

Wery says he was recently alerted of the addition of microphones to the building's surveillance system and has been researching the issue ever since.

“Nobody else in the state does this,” said Wery. “I talked to the League of Municipalities. They have no opinion of it. They're like, 'Someone is actually doing that?' They couldn't believe it.”

Bungert tells FOX 11 she has worked in other government buildings with similar audio recording devices.

FOX 11 asked Green Bay Police Chief Chris Davis if police recommended the microphones and he said the department was “kind of peripheral to the discussion.”

“I think the decision was made at the senior staff level at the city, so among department directors,” said Davis.

Bungert says the issues were addressed "as part of collaborative operational response between multiple departments including PD (police department), IT (information technology) and Parks Department."

“There were no unilateral directives given by any one individual," wrote Bungert in the email to FOX 11.

Davis says the addition of microphones is beneficial if a crime is alleged. He says drawbacks include privacy concerns.

State law requires one party in a private conversation must consent to the communication being recorded.

“Under the law, this being a common area in a public building, we really have no reasonable expectation of privacy, but you always have that concern and you don't want to be collecting information that you don't really need to collect,” said Davis.

Wery believes there is an expectation of privacy.

During Tuesday’s council meeting, Wery asked Mayor Eric Genrich to disable the microphones until a surveillance policy can be created. Genrich declined the request during a heated exchange.

“Anyone who approved this blatant disregard for privacy should resign or be severely reprimanded,” Wery told Genrich after he declined to disable the microphones.

FOX 11 asked Genrich why the microphones should not be disabled while a policy is developed.

“Because there is no basis for it,” said Genrich. “These are pretty standard surveillance systems that we have here in order to keep the public safe while they're on public property here.”

Wery submitted a request to have the issue taken up at a committee level, which would eventually be taken up by the full city council.

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FOX 11 reached out to the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for an opinion on the issue, but it had no one available for an interview.

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