By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – The November election is about a month away, and the City of Green Bay is helping facilitate a safe and efficient experience this go-around.
“We are trying to achieve safe voting in the middle of a pandemic,” said Celestine Jeffreys, chief of staff.
To achieve that, the city council approved the acceptance of an additional grant of $522,200 from The Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a national nonprofit, at a special meeting, Thursday, Sept. 24.
This is in addition to a grant the city received earlier this year to assist with election needs, also from CTCL.
Jeffreys said the money will be used for staffing and equipment, including sufficient ballot box collection, for the upcoming election.
She said the equipment purchases listed in the city’s grant proposal are for every city ward.
The motion was unanimously approved.
Voter outreach campaign
Alders also awarded a contract to KW2/HVS Advertising for a voter outreach campaign in the amount of $150,000.
This decision, however, didn’t come without contention.
Funds for the campaign are from the grant the city was awarded earlier this year from CTCL.
Council President Jesse Brunette said he is concerned the plan is partisan, and will target specific voters.
“(A) public relations firm will promote our election, so people know where to vote, and how to register and polling location changes and all the things that I think most of us, if not all of us, would agree that is a very good, valid thing for the City of Green Bay to do, especially during a pandemic,” he said. “I’m very concerned about keeping any special interest, any partisanship, any steering of voters away from our election.”
Sam Hutchinson, with HVS Advertising, said the only targeting his company, along with KW2, would do is getting as many Green Bay voters as possible.
“Our charge is to reach all voters in the City of Green Bay equally,” Hutchinson said. “That is all we will be attempting to do. We aren’t targeting any specific groups.”
Jeffreys said the city’s internal election team will make the final decision on the messaging to be distributed in mailings, social media, print media, etc. as part of the campaign.
Mayor Eric Genrich reminded the council this item was approved earlier this year, and this vote was just to award the contract.
“I think it is important to note, just for informational purposes, that the council approved this grant already,” Genrich said. “This $150,000 was in that. Council didn’t raise any concerns when this grant was approved. So I think that is important to note.”
District 9 Alder Brian Johnson said while it was included in the original grant approval, he feels it lacked transparency.
“I appreciate that this was in the original grant application that we approved, but I think what wasn’t particularly transparent at the time that we approved this was a very vocal endorsement from members of our administration on partisan candidates. So I do think it is a very fair question to ask if this PR campaign is going to blanket all voters within our community.”
Johnson asked the administration to reassure the community the campaign will attract all voters.
Genrich said he didn’t appreciate the implication.
“That’s an incredibly insulting question, first of all, second of all, this effort will be strictly non-partisan,” Genrich said.
District 1 Alder Barbara Dorff defended the mayor, saying this was a request from the elections committee, and she’s fed up with the roadblocks.
“I’m certain that all of you have seen that this was a request that came from the elections committee long ago, long, long ago,” Dorff said. “We wanted to ensure that with the polling locations possibly changing – which they did; with the procedures possibly changing – which they have, all of this information needed to get out there. This idea is not a brand new idea. You have all approved this as you have approved what the elections committee has been doing. And I really suggest that if you have not, that you go back and review all of those meetings and you listen to what we said and the things that we have been working on.”
Ultimately, the contract was approved 9-3 with John Vander Leest, Brunette and Chris Wery voting against.
A comprehensive report in regards to the campaign will be sent to council upon completion.
Suit filed to block funding
Even though the council voted to accept the funding and is already moving forward with some projects, there still may be hurdles ahead for the city.
The Wisconsin Voters Alliance filed a federal lawsuit last week asking a judge to block the funding from CTCL to five Wisconsin cities, including Green Bay, claiming the grants violate federal law.
In a press release, the alliance claims the money is intended to use government employees by targeting Democratic strongholds to boost voter turnout in those areas.
The press release said similar suits were filed in Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania.