Davis’s first attempt at online democracy has significant, “Kinks”
By Colin Walsh
Last night’s City Council was a hot mess. For the first time the council attempted to hold an interactive online meeting using the Zoom video conference platform, but the meeting was attended by several Zoomers intent on disrupting the meeting. Mayor Brett Lee repeatedly referred to the difficulties faced by the Council and the staff as “kinks,” which may have been more on point than he realized.
Meeting attendees included the profane “Haywood Jablomi,” “aids,” and “Test Test” to name a few of the obvious fake names trolls chose while disrupting the City Council meeting.
The New York Times reported about this rising phenomenon on March 20th, stating that as Zoom’s “user base rapidly expands, the video conference app Zoom is seeing a rise in trolling and graphic content.” The Times noted that trolls “are jumping into public Zoom calls and using the platform’s screen-sharing feature to project graphic content on unwitting conference participants, forcing hosts to shut down their events.”
In Davis last night, this feature was used to project hard-core pornography on the shared screen in the middle of the council meeting and an annotation feature was used to repeatedly scrawl racist messages, including the n-word, on the shared screen. In one case, an offensive picture of former President Obama was displayed. There is no doubt that these words and images made many members of the community feel threatened and unwelcome.
The Davis Council Zoom trolls also engaged in public comment with lewd, racist, bizarre, and off-topic remarks. Trolls seemed to log out and quickly log back in so they could comment multiple times. This greatly disrupted public comment, but to his credit for a long period Mayor Lee kept a proper tone and charged ahead doing his utmost to assure the public’s right to offer public comment was honored.
This new type of virtual City Council meeting was made possible by California Governor’s Executive Order N-29-20, issued in response to the COVID-19 Emergency. The order relaxes restrictions on public meetings in the Bagley-Keene Act and the Brown Act, California’s protections that set standards for fair and inclusive public meetings.
The challenge the mayor and staff face is, even though many virtual participants in the meeting were obvious trolls, they have a broad duty under the Brown Act to allow public comment. How the public can comment is relaxed by the Governor’s order, but that duty remains no matter what platform the council chooses for those comments to be heard.
As the meeting went on, the Zoom public comment section on each item deteriorated further with trolls making up the majority of the commenters. Between each agenda item the Mayor took a 10 minute break to allow staff the opportunity to make adjustments to the technology to try to keep out the trolls. The staff seemed unprepared for the Zoom trolls but were able to restrict some of the trolling behavior. The difficulty for the Council and the staff is it is hard to lock out trolls and still provide open access to the public. The two goals are inherently at odds.
Unfortunately, without warning City staff began locking out Zoom access to the City Council and several different Davis residents reported to me that they were unable to join the meeting through Zoom. Considering the City had clearly noticed Zoom access for the meeting, this falls into a dangerous area for the City and raises the question - is a meeting still a legal meeting if a method of attending the meeting that has been widely noticed is no longer a viable method for attending the meeting?
Some people seemed to give up on accessing the council meeting.
Worse, after a few agenda items, the mayor announced that public comment would only be accepted through email. This mid-stream change in policy causes me significant concern. The meeting was noticed clearly stating that “Live remote public comments” would be available if “joining the meeting via Zoom” either through video chat or phone dial in. One person reported to me that even thought they are a relatively fast typist, they found it difficult to type their thoughts in coherently and quickly, so that they ended up missing large swaths of the meeting while they focused on composing their thoughts on the fly. A slow typist would have had much greater difficulty, let alone someone who lacked email access altogether.
The mayor asked for an opinion from the city attorney who claimed on the spot that the change in public comment was legal. The City manager offered that it was the equivalent of clearing council chamber if a meeting is significantly disrupted, but the City attorney disagreed with the City Manager stating that was not the case in this instance.
Under the Governors order, “A local legislative body or state body that holds a meeting via teleconferencing and allows members of the public to observe and address the meeting telephonically or otherwise electronically, consistent with the notice and accessibility requirements,” set forth in the order.
The Governor’s order requires the City to, “Advertise that procedure [for public comment] each time notice is given of the means by which members of the public may observe the meeting and offer public comment.” The City did do this by including Zoom details it in its agenda.
But the order goes on to address possible changes in time date or method of public comment. “any instance in which there is a change in such means of public observation and comment,… a body may satisfy this requirement by advertising such means using ‘the most rapid means of communication available at the time.’” It does not seem that this section of the order was intended to address mid-meeting changes in participation, but Mayor Lee did several times announce the change over the video conference, and city staff posted a screen that indicated the change. The Mayor was certainly in a difficult place and trying to do what he saw as best to keep the City on track, but good intentions alone do not make this a legal city council meeting.
The Governors order clearly states however “this shall include, but need not be limited to, posting such means on the body's Internet website.” And that never happened, raising a question of the legality of the Council proceedings after they switched to email-only comments.
Clearly trying to craft email comments on the fly while listening to the meeting is a very different challenge than public speaking, and there were few new public comments after this point in the meeting.
Now, I can understand pushing ahead with emergency issues under difficult circumstances, but the City Council took up several clearly non-emergency and even controversial items during this questionable conduction of the meeting – the Council banned smokeless tobacco to take effect sometime in the future, the City regulated campfires on public property, and approved a controversial 40 year lease for a solar farm.
The Solar Farm decision was the worst part of this. There were several emails read into the record from members of the Utilities Commission, the Natural Resources Commission, and the Open Space and Habitat Commission all raising significant concerns about this use of City lands and the seemingly low-price no-bid contract the City was giving the solar company for the 40 year lease. It was also pointed out that there were no guarantees the City or Davis residents would even benefit from the electricity generated by the new facility. Further, Mayor Pro Tem Partida and Councilmember Frerichs clearly wanted more process before approving this item – none of the commissions had reviewed the proposal and there had not been a formal Request for Proposals (RFP) from other potentially interested solar companies – leaving a rare split decision of the Council to approve it. In the end, when Arnold hastily moved the project over clear object, even though Partida had voiced support for more process - she ultimately voted with the 4-1 majority to both proceed/ and disallow any additional process.
Given the problems with the meeting, and the problems with the 40-year no-bid solar farm lease, it should never have been voted on last night. Having done so ties up a large swatch of city property for many years to come with below market rate rent and no guarantees of positive outcomes to the City. That is not the type of decision that should be made at an emergency meeting with emergency procedures.
It is difficult to tell how many trolls attacked the Davis Council meeting, but there was a sense that a loosely organized group of young people were engaging in the attack together. The Times reports that, “Links to public zooms are traded in Facebook Groups and Discord chats, and are easily discoverable on Twitter and public event pages.”
It is unfortunate the Council and City staff were caught unaware of Zoom bombing, despite the Times article published 4 days prior to the meeting. Councilmember Frerichs even sent the NY Times article quoted above to City staff in advance of the meeting, so they ought to have been more prepared. There were not even any instructions given to citizens at the beginning of the meeting for appropriate Zoom use and protocols.
Our City democracy was stress tested last night, and sadly though the mayor, the staff and the City Council were clearly trying to do their best, it was not a success. When meetings must be conducted under emergency conditions, they should be limited to essential business like the eviction protections the Council put in place last night. Emergency meetings with shaky proceedings should not be used to push through controversial new projects, which is sadly what the Mayor and a majority on the City Council did last night.
My compliments to Mayor Pro Tem Partida and Councilmber Frerichs for raising process concerns regarding the controversial 40 year lease of City property and my compliments to Brett Lee for his amazing poker face through the Zoom bomb attacks.
At the very end of the meeting, during the long-range calendar agenda item, the Council agreed to agendize discussion of what business should be conducted at these emergency procedure council meetings. Sadly, Dan Carson and Brett Lee have already signaled a clear desire to push through all city business no matter how controversial even if the commissions and the public can’t properly participate in the process.