It seemed to start off all right—the councilmembers found themselves able to participate at the start of the meeting. The trouble started toward the end of the regular public comment—ironically right after folks like Roberta Millstein, Colin Walsh, Ron Oertel and Rik Keller asked council to only take up emergency items during the COVID-19 emergency.
At that point the council started getting “Zoom bombed” as the city did not plan ahead and shut down the ability for the public to comment, so things quickly descended into the roll of trolls and hackers to share their screens and they did with racist graffiti and sexually graphic images.
After a ten-minute break following the general public comment, that got shut down. However, the wave of callers—all of them sounding like young men, perhaps a young as teenagers—continued, making both racist as well as sexually crude comments interspersed between legitimate comments of concern on the topic of the rental eviction moratorium. The coup de grâce was perhaps one caller that started out sounding like he was making a legitimate comment, before heading south.
Remarkably, Mayor Brett Lee, at times dead panned his response to the callers and patiently waded through the queue. At times, whoever had the mute button control was a bit slow to respond.
Eventually the council’s solution was to shut down public comment in that way and, following a second break after the rental ordinance item, they simply took comments via email.
Interestingly enough, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning met via Zoom without incident.
The remarkable thing is people kept doing it. It was mildly humorous (but also offensive at times) at first, but after the tenth person doing it, what was the point?
Staff then read into the record additional public comment received through an email address.
It is a challenging time to say the least. The public and council are precluded from making their normal participation in a public gathering setting due to the threat from COVID-19. The first bite of the apple did not go well. Staff and council were a bit unprepared—but that’s largely understandable.
It doesn’t help that there are folks in the community bent on making the point that the only thing the council should take up—perhaps for the next six months, maybe longer—are emergency items.
As Roberta Millstein, who gave public comments and submitted emails, said on Facebook in response to councilmember Lucas Frerichs who took the time to engage with the public, “I heard and saw all the appalling things. I realize that staff is trying to figure things out on the fly under challenging circumstances. But I am sorry, this is a reason why a full meeting should not have been attempted. There may be people who don’t get the word about how to submit comments, who may have just given up when they couldn’t join on Zoom.”
Although, watching from home later in the evening, scrolled at the bottom of the screen was the email address for people to make a comment.
Colin Walsh added, “The City Council had the option of streamlining the agenda and taking the solar farm and the tobacco ordinance at a later date, but instead the council pushed forward the full agenda even though the public could no longer fully participate.”
But Councilmember Frerichs pointed out, saying that “you’ve submitted numerous public comments this evening and ALL of them have been made (by yourself- earlier in the meeting) or read aloud into the public record.”
He added, “It hasn’t been perfect, but you’ve been participating—all night long.”
One flawed process done under emergency conditions should not mean we shut down all of the public meetings except for emergency items. There are other ways to do this.
Clearly, Zoom—which actually worked well for the council portion of the interaction—is not the ideal way to conduct the public meeting. But why not try to get the process right rather than throw up our hands in failure after the first attempt?
There are meetings and call-ins that proceed all the time without descending into madness.
One option would be simply to only take comments via email. Another possibility is to take them via phone with a screening process. A third possibility is to allow the mayor to have control over the mute button and simply mute people more quickly when their comment descends into pranking.
It is unfortunate, however, that some want to use the bumpy first attempt as a reason to shut down meetings.
But this is going to be probably a fairly long-term shutdown process.
As Mayor Brett Lee told the Vanguard in our interview, “we need to continue to do work to improve our community.”
He added, “Just because the coronavirus has hit doesn’t mean that the only things that we need to address are coronavirus related, because a lot of things are still going on.”
He said it’s not an option for the city to simply stop functioning. “The community doesn’t want that,” he said. “The community wants us to do our job.”
It is very clear that there is a portion of the public that wants this process shut down, in part because they want to stop the Aggie Research Campus.
In fact, the four commenters who made the public comment on Tuesday and several who made the posts on Facebook, in response to the Enterprise reporter’s post on the Zoom bombing, fall into that category.
Mayor Lee acknowledged on Monday in our interview that there is a legitimate concern here, that we need to be able to have a full and public process.
He pointed out that we don’t want to have to shut down the commissions for the next six months. So one question, he said he wants to know, “is how the commissions can also function in this new environment.
“I don’t think it’s really an option for there to be no commission meetings for the next six months,” he said. “For me the question is how do we bring the commission process back so that it’s a robust full commission process while acknowledging the coronavirus challenges.”
These are all legitimate concerns. But he also pointed out that, moving away from Aggie Research Campus and toward the issue of Mace Blvd., an acceptable answer for the community would not be to simply wait a year before proceeding.
We already had a challenge with the coronavirus, now we have a challenge about how to have a robust public process with a childish segment of the population.
And it’s unfortunate because this process seemed to lend itself to the participation of citizens beyond the narrow slice that normally come and participate at council meetings.
I believe we can do it, but it may take a few rounds. And aside from some annoyance last night, nothing really catastrophic occurred at the meeting.
—David M. Greenwald reporting