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365体育投注How it should look: Davis Mayor Brett Lee waits for a question during Tuesday night's virtual City Council meeting. Courtesy image

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A tale of two Zoom meetings: Glitches and porn

Local governments deal with unexpected complications in video meetings

With a shelter-in-place order preventing local government agencies from meeting the old-fashioned way — in large auditoriums open to the public — the Davis City Council and Yolo County Board of Supervisors pressed on with public meetings nonetheless on Tuesday, turning to Zoom video conferencing to make it possible.

365体育投注Both agencies posted agendas last week with detailed instructions for public participation, including how to log in to the Zoom app or call in for audio only, and how to provide public comment.

County supervisors kicked off this new way of doing things first, beginning at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

There were some glitches. At various points during the meeting, which lasted a little over two hours, a supervisor would abruptly disappear from the conversation, either muted unintentionally or disconnected altogether. Staff members joining in to give reports or updates occasionally had trouble. There were some lengthy pauses for various technical difficulties.

365体育投注The most frequently heard comments throughout the morning were “Can you hear me?” and “Is he muted?”

The most unusual comment of the morning: “Sorry, you caught me with a mouthful of banana.”

365体育投注At one point Supervisor Gary Sandy of Woodland, who currently serves as board chair, disappeared from the conversation entirely, prompting County Administrator Patrick Blacklock to ask Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis to take over the meeting, which he did with no trouble.

365体育投注But by and large, the board conducted its business. Dr. Ron Chapman, the county’s public health officer, provided an update on the COVID-19 situation and compliance with the shelter-in-place order while other staff members discussed steps being taken countywide to prepare for a surge in hospitalizations, getting the homeless off the streets during the pandemic and other measures being taken in response to the local emergency.

365体育投注Members of the public who wished to provide public comment did so — though there were just a handful who did — and every matter on the agenda was heard and voted on with no significant disruption.

Two hours and 24 minutes later, it was over.

Zoom away

Then there was the Davis City Council meeting that occurred later that night. And what a meeting that was.

365体育投注The thing about Zoom, which has been a go-to method for everything from staff meetings to classroom instruction to family gatherings during this era of social distancing, is there can be issues.

Case in point: Zoombombing.

According to an article in the New York Times last week, “Zoombombing: When Video Conferences Go Wrong,” the videoconference app is seeing a rise in trolling and graphic content.

As the article notes, “Zoom has become the default social platform for millions of people looking to connect with friends, family, students and colleagues while practicing social distancing during the new coronavirus pandemic. But the trolls of the internet are under quarantine, too, and they’re looking for Zooms to disrupt.”

365体育投注They do so by entering public Zoom calls and using the app’s screensharing feature to post graphic content, something possible because of Zoom’s default setting that allows any meeting participant to share their screen without permission from the event’s host, the Times article notes.

The key, then, is changing that setting, which the city staff did on Tuesday night, but only after the trolls had made their presence felt.

In the middle of public comment on a consent calendar item on Tuesday night, graphic images began appearing on the screen, from pornographic pictures and vulgar drawings to repeated scribblings of a racial slur.

365体育投注“Obviously for those of you watching via Zoom, we’re experiencing a few kinks here in the video presentation, so please bear with us,” Mayor Brett Lee said.

As quickly as city staff changed the screen, another image appeared, until staff figured out how to prevent the screen takeover.

For most Zoom video conference meetings, that might be the end of the matter.

The challenge for the City Council was that preventing screen takeovers is not the only issue.

The council is required to take public comment throughout the evening and the plan was for city staff to individually call on each person who virtually raised a hand to do so. The problem: Staff had no idea who they were truly calling on, other than a screen name, with or without an image, or a phone number. As it turned out, there were a lot of what sounded to be young men and boys apparently with little else to do on a Tuesday night during a shelter-in-place.

365体育投注Loud, vulgar, insulting and frequently racist, they peppered everyone listening with what seemed to be a coordinated effort to outrage. Once the intent of such a caller was clear, staff would mute and disconnect him and the mayor would calmly move on to the next in line. But they kept coming.

365体育投注“Well I guess that’s what happens when the junior high kids are out of school for several weeks,” said Lee at one point. “It gets a little boring so I guess this is the next best thing to hanging out on the playground.”

365体育投注“Thank you to the public for bearing with us with some of these Zoom meeting challenges,” he said later.

During public comment on the first major item of the night — an urgency ordinance enacting a moratorium on evictions during the local emergency — the prank callers outnumbered the sizable number of callers who actually wanted to weigh in on the issue.

365体育投注Lee, who remained unflappable throughout, called for a break after the council approved the urgency ordinance so city staff could figure out how to handle public comment on the next item. The solution they devised: those who wished to comment on the remaining items on the agenda were asked to email their comments and they would be read aloud by staff.

That put an end to the prank calls, but not everyone was satisfied with the method.

Some members of the public said they simply didn’t have enough time to type up and email what they wanted to say. Others questioned the legality of the move.

365体育投注City Attorney Inder Khalsa told the council she believed it was, in fact, legal to move to emailed comments only.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, she said, had suspended some elements of the Brown Act in his shelter-in-place order but the requirement for the public to be able to participate in a meeting remained, “and we’ve taken the position that providing written comment during the meeting satisfies that.”

365体育投注And that’s how business was handled for the remainder of Tuesday’s meeting.

What’s next

Now, having gotten through that eventful meeting, the council will have to decide how to hold future meetings. And part of that discussion will be what items should be taken up during the local emergency and which should wait until the city is functioning normally again.

Even before the Zoombombing began Tuesday evening, some Davis residents weighing in during general public comment questioned moving forward with virtual meetings like Tuesdays, asking whether projects and plans and other non-emergency matters can be truly vetted well under these circumstances.

Tuesday night’s agenda was not just about coronavirus issues — the council also took up a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco and other items.

Meanwhile, items on future agendas for not just the City Council but also city commissions include the Downtown Davis Specific Plan, the proposed Aggie Research Campus and the Mace Boulevard redesign project.

Critics of moving forward with those things during the local emergency noted that some city residents lack reliable internet service while others are overwhelmed dealing with the fallout from the pandemic and shelter-and-place order — busy caring for children who are out of school, working at home, becoming sick or caring for others who are, worried about paying their bills.

“Many of us have put our lives on hold,” said Roberta Millstein. “I think the city has to do the same.”

365体育投注But council members — particularly Lee and Councilman Dan Carson — disagreed.

365体育投注“We need to figure out a way that the City Council can meet and we also need to test the waters to see how we can get our commissions up and running and able to function and have robust public participation,” said Lee.

365体育投注“I think it’s the role of the city to be able to move forward on not just coronavirus-related items,” the mayor said. “If we anticipate, which I believe to be a realistic thing, that this new normal could be up to six months long, we need to find a way to take care of general city business.”

365体育投注He suggested that at the next council meeting, members discuss what items are appropriate to tackle during the course of this pandemic and which can wait. That next meeting is currently scheduled for April 14 but may be moved up by a week.

Lee also apologized again to the public “for the fact that our first foray into the online meeting format did not go as we had hoped.”

“There were some bright spots but obviously we have some work to do,” he said. “Our goal is not to curtail or abridge the ability of the public to participate in these meetings and unfortunately that was made more complicated for some, so between now and the next meeting, I know staff … and the council will be working on that.”

365体育投注Councilman Will Arnold said he shared Lee’s “condemnation of some of the activities we witnessed during our earlier public comment sessions today,” and added that, “obviously, the racist rhetoric that was utilized by some folks … has zero place in our public discourse and obviously all of us condemn that.”

365体育投注He said the rest of the behavior “falls in the bucket of shenanigans… and while it’s sort of low-level humor, junior highesque humor … it still has no place in the public’s business and it did today make it so that it was more difficult for members of the public to comment.”

However, Arnold said, “I am confident that we … can work together to find a way to prevent the trolling and allow for public comment to happen in this time where we’re all doing so from at least six feet away from each other.”

Recordings of both the Board of Supervisors meeting and the City Council meeting are available online.

The board meeting is available at: .

The council meeting is available at: .

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy. We’ve put all COVID-19 news stories and local columns outside our paywall, to make sure all the information on local coronavirus response gets disseminated as widely as possible. To subscribe to The Enterprise and support local journalism, click here.

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