By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Pay no attention to those concerning emails.
The Green Bay Common Council was prepared to pass a resolution Tuesday “expressing full confidence in the administration” of the city’s August primaries and November General Election. But after nearly five hours of heated debate, the 12-member council voted to hold off on a vote until the city attorney files her report on just how wonderful the city’s handling of the election was.
“Therefore be if resolved, that the Common Council of the City of Green Bay proudly asserts that the August and November 2020 elections administered by the City of Green Bay were properly secured in an accurate, safe, and secure manner, and hereby reject allegations to the contrary,” the resolution in question states.
In other words, Move along, nothing to see here.
Except, there is. Like those pesky emails — including one from a city council member expressing concerns about just who was in charge of Green Bay’s November election.
While a majority of the council was ready to jump to the defense of the city’s good name, a few alders said there remain too many unanswered questions — too many emails that cast shade on assertions of pristine election administration.
Questioning the propriety
Lashing out against “allegations … calling into question the propriety” of Green Bay’s election administration, the resolution is packed with explanations and justifications.
Green Bay “faced pandemic conditions for the first time in 100 years.” Yes, we all did. But that crisis forced city staff and the Common Council to “reconsider all election processes and procedures …”
Thank goodness the Center for Tech and Civic Life was there to help Green Bay deal with such challenging times. The left-leaning CTCL last year received hundreds of millions of dollars from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — money to be exclusively used for “planning and operationalizing safe and secure election administration,” according to the resolution. CTCL handed out $6.3 million in grants to Wisconsin’s five largest and most heavily Democratic cities, including $1.6 million to Green Bay.
As a Wisconsin Spotlight investigation exposed, those grants came with strings. CTCL and its liberal “nonprofit” partners, emails show, weren’t just providing advice and counsel; they were taking over major functions of election administration. A former Democratic operative, Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, offered to help correct or “cure” absentee ballots. He said his organization had a “process map that we’ve worked out for Milwaukee for their process.” Kris Teske, Green Bay city clerk at the time, rejected the offer. While city officials dispute Spitzer-Rubenstein had “access to the ballots, computers, storage, equipment or the like,” the emails tell a different story.
And there were plenty of concerns about the third-party groups and their level of involvement. Teske, emails show, grew so frustrated she quit, just days before the election. Green Bay Alderman Chris Wery worried about the outside groups’ activities in the absence of the city’s veteran clerk.
“We are moving central count to the KI [Convention Center]. I have heard that an outside group, not even from Wisconsin, is assisting with this? Why are they helping? Who made that decision? Was this cleared with the county clerk or state? What is their role and what access do they have to our facility and ballots/tabulators?” Wery wrote in an Oct. 29 email to Kim Wayte, election specialist in the clerk’s office.
Wayte didn’t answer. Celestine Jeffreys, chief of staff for Democrat Mayor Eric Genrich, did. She said City Attorney Venessa Chavez would get back to the alderman. Instead, Jeffreys emailed the council members a day later, “to clarify” the city’s decision to move its central count operations and the “work of the consultants affiliated with the Election grant.”
“As part of the $1.6M election grant award, we were offered and have received technical assistance from experts in elections, security, public relations and analysis,” Jeffreys wrote. The “experts” included a host of left-leaning groups — Spitzer-Rubenstein’s National Vote at Home Institute, the Brennan Center, the Elections Group, Ideas 42 and US Digital Response.
“They provide additional input and insight, as we make arrangements to move Central Count. They do not have access to ballots, computers, storage, equipment or the like. They don’t have access to any building.”
But they did. Spitzer-Rubenstein was not only at central count, emails and other documents show he took a lead position. In one email, the activist asks city officials whether the ballots will be in trays or boxes.
“I’m at KI now, trying to figure out whether we’ll need to move the bins throughout the day or if we can just stick them along the wall and use trays or something similar to move the ballots between stations,” Spitzer-Rubenstein wrote.
Going after the questioners
Chavez, the city attorney, has been busy lately, sending out a defense of the city’s handling of the 2020 elections to city council members. In an email dated March 10, a day after Wisconsin Spotlight’s special investigation published, Chavez told council members that Jeffreys and Spitzer-Rubenstein “confirmed” that the former Democratic operative did not have keys to central count, where the ballots were stored. Documents suggest otherwise. She noted that Spitzer-Rubenstein “confirmed” that while his organization “offered to provide assistance curing ballots, that offer was declined. He made clear he never touched any of the ballots.”
But what if Teske hadn’t declined the offer? Spitzer-Rubenstein, in an Oct. 7 email, told Teske that the mayor’s chief of staff “mentioned curing ballots might be something we could take off your plate.”
No matter. The mayor’s office and several of allies on the Green Bay Common Council say it’s all just conspiracy theories. Some citizens who spoke during a long comment period, agreed, asserting that Wisconsin Spotlight’s investigation, lawmakers’ calls for a full probe into the city’s handling of the election, even asking questions about the third-party organizations’ involvement is the stuff of “insurrectionists” and “white supremacists.”
That’s how Ned Dorff sees it. The elementary school teacher says daring to question the integrity of Green Bay’s election is a “stain on our democracy.”
“This conspiracy movement is inextricably tied to the white supremacist movement,” Dorff opined. “Give their evangelists a strong rebuke with your vote” in support of the resolution.
That’s the kind of overheated rhetoric Green Bay’s mayor has used in recent days in trying to explain away the emails. One resident in particular took offense.
“The goal is not to overturn the election, the goal is to ask questions in a democratic way. When we see third-party money coming in or Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein’s Democratic background, we have to ask those questions,” the resident said, adding that doing so doesn’t make her “a conspiracy theorist or a white supremacist.”