Commentary: On Second Thought, Perhaps Zoom Wasn’t the Best Way to Host a Public Meeting

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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?

As Lucas Frerichs pointed out in a Facebook message: “We were getting zoom bombed left and right so it was locked since we’re not taking public comment, after it was closed on the last item.”

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


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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50 thoughts on “Commentary: On Second Thought, Perhaps Zoom Wasn’t the Best Way to Host a Public Meeting”

  1. Sharla Cheney

    Could they require that the commenters camera be turned on Or they can send it in by email?  Wouldn’t that at least help identify the trolls?

    1. Bill Marshall

      That idea (commenter camera on, and visible) has merit… and should seriously be considered… that would fit the normal protocols of CC live public comment, where folk are asked for their name, and are visible on the Chamber cameras.

      Another, that is traditional in many public meeting venues, but to my knowledge, never in Davis, is some version of the “comment card” approach… Sharla’s e-mail question suggestion actually was used later in the meeting, and shifted tone and content nearly 180 degrees…

      Of the two, Sharla’s concept of name and requiring the commenter to be visible with their camera turned on, has the most merit, if technologically feasible… and I’m pretty confident it would pass legal muster.

      The concept should definitely be shared with the CM office.  Not my place tho’, for various reasons.

       

      1. Hiram Jackson

        Bill Marshall: ‘Another, that is traditional in many public meeting venues, but to my knowledge, never in Davis, is some version of the “comment card” approach… ‘

        The Davis school district requires comment cards be submitted during public comment during school board meetings, which requires identifying information.

  2. Tia Will

    I watched the entire meeting last night. My thoughts:

    I teleconferenced for years uneventfully prior to retiring 3 years ago. As David pointed out, there are many ways around the pranking.

    I agree with the City Council members that the city should not be shut down due to the current crisis. I understand Roberta Milstein feels the inability to “focus” of some is limiting during the current crisis. However, for some, working from home or not having as many other distractions provides an opportunity to spend more time on city issues. Individual perspective should not be used as a reason to halt city functions.

    I would, however, caution the City Council members that because the city continues to have other concerns, the pandemic has effects on a broad range of issues, some of which may not be apparent. Saying that we must continue with the city’s business is not the same as saying we should continue business as usual. I would urge all members to think, with regard to all issues, how does the pandemic affect this issue, and how does this issue affect the pandemic before moving forward.

     

     

    1. Ron Oertel

      I would urge all members to think, with regard to all issues, how does the pandemic affect this issue, and how does this issue affect the pandemic before moving forward.

      Some impacts, like the cancellation of commission meetings (to vet proposals) are obvious – regardless of the disaster that occurred last night.

      1. Tia Will

        Ron,

        I am speaking seriously with no snide intent when I say we seem to have a very different perception of what is “disastrous”. I consider the coronavirus pandemic “disastrous”. What happened last night was, as intended, disruptive and puerile. “Disastrous”? Hardly. And it can be used as a point on the learning curve of how to handle such situations more effectively in the future.

         

        1. Ron Oertel

          As far as council meetings are concerned, it was an unmitigated disaster.

          There are ramifications regarding attempting to conduct “business as usual” during the larger disaster that you’re referring to.

          The city is falling off of a fiscal cliff as a result of the virus, and has cancelled commission meetings.  Those commissions provide much-needed vetting of proposals, for example. For that matter, the “virus crisis” essentially eliminates in-person communications.

          I apparently have much less faith than you, regarding the city’s ability to carry-on business as usual.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            “As far as council meetings are concerned, it was an unmitigated disaster.”

            It wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. The public comment portion was less than ideal. They were able to fix some of it. They installed a temporary plug with the email and reading them outloud. On the other hand, the council was able to use the technology, community and receive public feedback under trying circumstances. Tia’s right, this was a first try, they learned a lot and they will learn more.

        2. Bill Marshall

          Yes, Alan… there are fascinations with watching train wrecks, (if one is not on the train)… Rome liked ‘spectacles’ as well… considered public entertainment… maybe we can get a video copy of the first part, and submit it to “the Comedy Channel”… been a long time since Davis was featured on that!  We need to refresh our “image”… M.D.F.A. (we could have green ballcaps with that embroidered!)[Make Davis Funny Again].

        3. Alan Miller

          WM, I truly respect a well-crafted prank (if no one is injured).  And, if people are being honest about it, the hackers exposed the vulnerabilities of the system quickly so the holes could be patched.  In that sense (besides the entertainment value), we owe them a thank you.

      2. Bill Marshall

        Similar, but different from Tia’s response: based on both this post, and your following:

        As far as council meetings are concerned, it was an unmitigated disaster.  No, it was mitigated (fact) and disaster is your opinion, not factual, and I opine that it was awkward, noting more, nothing less
         
        There are ramifications regarding attempting to conduct “business as usual” during the larger disaster that you’re referring to. And what would those be (or are we to infer/guess)?
         
        The city is falling off of a fiscal cliff as a result of the virus, (clearly an opinion, facts not in evidence) and has cancelled commission meetings (untrue, deferred, looking for alternate ways of doing that).  Those commissions provide much-needed vetting of proposals, for example. For that matter, the “virus crisis” essentially eliminates in-person communications.
         
        I apparently have much less faith than you, regarding the city’s ability to carry-on business as usual. Clearly, opinion, and one I do not share...
        [edited]

      1. Alan Miller

        There definitely needs to be some sort of call in option.

        Some people can’t afford a phone.

        Although, being the last person on earth who got a cell phone, I used to find it weird that I’d see so-called homeless people sitting in camps talking on their cell phones.

      1. Alan Miller

        They are our neighbors, y’know . . . and residents of this city (as in, they ‘reside’ here) . . . and they grew up in Davis and didn’t come from other states . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I’m told.

    1. Tia Will

      I believe that some telephone messaging system could be arranged. While it is true some folks probably do not have telephone access, this is how it was managed remotely prior to widespread computer use, maybe not in Davis, but in my then rural home town.

       

  3. Ron Oertel

    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.

    Not true – they started during my comment period, at least.  I made a comment noting this, while speaking.  It was distracting, and it impacted my 2-minute allotted comment period.  I was not able to complete my comments, partly as a result of this.

    However, it is ironic that I noted that there would be technical problems, right before I noticed the disaster unfolding.

    Also, what do you mean by “folks like”?

        1. Ron Oertel

          “Folks like” can be used as a way to “dismiss” concerns shared by some, in much the same way as the more derisive term that you use.  (While failing to acknowledge “folks like” you, for example.  Of whom I tend to view/group-together with those who advocate a Chamber of Commerce type advocacy)

           

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            You’re now on record objecting to the use of the word, “folks.” Thank you for your comment.

    1. Alan Miller

      Also, what do you mean by “folks like”?

      Already asked and deleted.  Though of course you wouldn’t know that, cuz it was deleted. (Probably beecuz of the apparently taboo comment I made that it was nested within).

  4. Don Shor

    If they got through the agenda, were able to receive public comment and take action within the Brown Act, then the meeting system worked. It should be possible to moderate content. This system or a similar one should be available for commissions. The work of the city can go on.

  5. Pam Gunnell

    “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.”
    There are legitimate concerns about the processing of the ARC application with the limitations caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is true that I and others are against the project. It is also true that we want a full community vetting and discussion because it is a significant project with significant impacts. Clearly this will be hampered by the current commission and council meeting process, and all of the other concerns that are derailing people’s attention during the crisis from economic to homeschooling to illness.  Many things will face delays during this time and rightly so.

     

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Pam: I agree – Many things will face delay right now. I would suggest a take it as we go mentality. Do what we can. We don’t have to decide now that we can’t do something. The voters get the ultimate say as to whether it was enough – if it goes to a vote at this time.

    2. Don Shor

      I agree. The issues with scheduling commission meetings and receiving public input will likely require that some project applications be delayed. It is quite possible that changed circumstances may be causing the project applicants to consider delay as well.

      The city staff really has to set priorities at the moment. In my opinion, the impact of severe loss of revenue in the short term (first and second quarter sales tax revenues are likely to fall way below projections) will require reassessing the budget and reviewing staffing. Then a reasonable schedule of online meetings for the commissions can be set up and publicized. Every business in town, every non-profit in town, and even likely the university are all having to review projections and make serious adjustments.

      I’ll be very surprised if ARC is still on the November ballot as previously discussed. But I do think city business can go on. Just much more slowly, most likely.

       

  6. Ron Glick

    Let us imagine if there was no Measure R. Then there would be no  rush to get ARC done in time for the November election and the work that staff could do without Covid-19 interruption could proceed apace while the parts that require riskier inputs could wait.

    As for Measure R itself I agree with those that think the CC shouldn’t engage in non-emergency activities and therefore not place its renewal on the November ballot.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Darn good observation… Measure R puts artificial timeframes on process… had not occurred to me, that it is a ‘quantum’ thing… another good reason to question it.

      It’s also a good motivation for those to support renewal… you can just delay enough to push a vote off for two years… connivingly brilliant!

      Which a current ‘gang of four’ seem to be doing under the aegis of “we need to stop processing, until covid-19 is history”…

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        Measure R does put a timeframe on process. But even absent of Measure R, people in the economic development sphere believe that projects should not be put on hold and new projects should be launched.

        Barry Broome, head of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, said he spent the day on the phone Friday calling builders and developers, encouraging them not only to maintain ongoing projects, but also to launch new ones.

        “The natural thing to do right now is to freeze,” he said. “But this is a great time to be strategic.” Construction and labor costs are down, he said, so people who start building now can have projects ready late this year or next year when, he predicts, the economy will bounce back.

        link here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/coronavirus/article241374681.html#storylink=cpy

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          I think one of the things we are paying for still is that during the recession a decade ago, we did stop and focused on triage. At some point there is going to be an equilibrium and we don’t have a need for new emergency measures. This could be a very good time to plan.

        2. Bill Marshall

          You have ears, but do not hear… there are vocal folk, deliberately trying to make sure that ARC does not go to a November vote, precisely because they want to put it off until 2022.  They just mask it by the virus and ‘public process concerns’… smoke screen…

          Measure R should either be repealed, or allowed to sunset… it is a ‘gimmick’… yet few are willing to confront the way it is being used to manipulate the process… anf, next we’ll hear from the “true believers” in Measure R, and their spineless apologists.

           

        3. Alan Miller

          people in the economic development sphere believe that projects should not be put on hold and new projects should be launched.

          Gee, I wonder why.  And is other news, “Sun Hot”.

          This morning, a friend and I, standing six feet apart, were watching the construction of the project formerly known as Lincoln40. We were discussing the exemption for construction workers that allows projects to keep going, and watching actual distances of workers doing various activities. On which, I shall not comment further.

      2. Ron Oertel

        There are those who want to “push through” such proposals, while no one is watching the store.  They may believe that is serves them well to downplay the impacts.  But ultimately, this will backfire on them.

        [Moderator: You have now reached 7 posts on this thread. Thank you for your participation.]

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          You can’t push through proposals that require public votes. What you can do is continue the process and make a decision at the appropriate time.

        2. Ron Oertel

          You can certainly try.  And as part of that attempt, downplay the impact of a lack of vetting, for example.

          Are you attempting to be purposefully amusing, by quoting Barry Broome?  Right after I just noted your “Chamber of Commerce” type of advocacy?

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            But why are you assuming there will be a lack of vetting? And ultimately don’t the voters decide that?

  7. Ron Glick

    “It is true that I and others are against the project. It is also true that we want a full community vetting and discussion because it is a significant project with significant impacts. Clearly this will be hampered by the current commission and council meeting process, and all of the other concerns that are derailing people’s attention during the crisis from economic to homeschooling to illness.  Many things will face delays during this time and rightly so.”

    I agree Pam and would apply the same argument to the process of renewing Measure R.

    1. Alan Miller

      Ron, ‘honest question’:  Would you have Measure R extended under emergency powers to ‘maintain the status quo’ until voters could decide under normal circumstances, or quietly die without a vote?

  8. Ron Glick

    Let it die. If the proponents want it let them do the hard work of renewing  it by initiative. After all the people most likely to try to do that are the same ones saying we shouldn’t do anything not Covid-19 related so why should they get to pick and choose the agenda? Isn’t that the prerogative of the elected members of the CC.

    Think it through. They argue we shouldn’t work on ARC because of Covid-19 and our ability to fully vet the project but doing so delays the project for two years, well beyond the likely Covid-19 delay period, until another election can be held. Allowing Measure R to sunset would allow for full vetting of the project without the additional delay of holding an election.

    Also don’t forget even without Measure R there would still be the referendum process so its not as if there is no check on the CC. It simply takes more work by project opponents.

     

     

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “Let it die. If the proponents want it let them do the hard work of renewing it by initiative”

      My understanding is they don’t have that option

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