Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Tuesday, March 19 @ 3:49 p.m.

Crescent City Discontinues Virtual Public Comment After Zoombombing Attack


(VIDEO) Antisemitic, Racist Hate Speech Infiltrates Crescent City Council Meeting


Two weeks after a handful of individuals unleashed antisemitic and racist vitriol via Zoom during public comment, Crescent City councilors on Monday voted to jettison the platform. But the decision wasn’t easy.

Two councilors, Jason Greenough and Kelly Schellong, opposed the idea of taking away one of the methods the public has for participating in their meetings, though they condemned the Zoombombing that took place on March 4.

Crescent City Mayor Pro Tem Raymond Altman had more pragmatic reasons for wanting to discontinue Zoom, citing the technical challenges that often arise.

For Mayor Blake Inscore and Councilor Isaiah Wright, however, the decision to take away the Zoom option was more personal.

An initial motion from Greenough to keep using Zoom failed by a 2-3 vote with Inscore, Wright and Altman dissenting. Wright’s subsequent motion to stop using Zoom passed by a 3-2 vote with Schellong and Greenough dissenting.

Wright, who is Black, said it’s easier for him to see someone “acting a fool” at the podium. He said he’d rather hear the comments in person and can recognize that it’s not “happening to me, they’re happening in front of me.” The language he, his colleagues and members of the public was forced to hear two weeks ago isn’t Del Norte, Wright said.

“It’s funny, as soon as the first person said something [I’m thinking], ‘OK, we’re going to be sitting here for 20 minutes dealing with a bunch of idiots,’” he told his colleagues. “It’s just not Del Norte at all. I love this place we live in and I’ve never had any issues even remotely close to any of these things. I had them when I lived in LA, but not once up here. I love this community, and I think it’s unfortunate, but I think we do personally need to get rid of Zoom.”

The Crescent City Council, like most government entities, began using Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. After Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay at home order, the platform allowed for flexibility and, according to City Attorney Martha Rice, led to increased public engagement for the city.

People were attending and providing input that councilors and staff hadn’t heard from before because of Zoom, Rice said. The city continued to allow public comment to continue via the videoconferencing platform even after in-person meetings resumed, though that has dropped off. Zoom is more commonly used at the staff level and to speak with consultants, the city attorney said.

Then came the two Zoombombing incidents. In addition to the March 4 attack at the City Council meeting, planning commissioners experienced a similar incident at a meeting a few months ago, City Manager Eric Wier told the Wild Rivers Outpost on March 5.

On Monday, Rice said Crescent City was lucky. Some communities have experienced similar attacks from people appearing in person.

“One of the questions that comes up is that people will say, ‘well, if someone starts saying something offensive, why don’t you just turn off their mic or kick them out?’” Rice told councilors. “Well, we can’t do that because of the First Amendment.”

Under California’s Ralph M. Brown Act, the public can address a governing body on “any matter that’s within their subject matter jurisdiction,” Rice said. She noted that the groups are implicated in Zoombombing incidents have become adept at trying to do that, often using a proclamation on the agenda as the reason for their comment.

The Council can ask the public not to speak until the mayor recognizes them, require them come to the podium to offer comment and give them 3 minutes to speak, Rice said.

“We cannot as a government regulate what they are saying or treat them differently based on what they’re saying. That’s viewpoint discrimination and it’s highly offensive to the First Amendment,” Rice said. “The times we can silence somebody or kick them out of a meeting is if they are actually disrupting a meeting [by] shouting, yelling over, marching back and forth or making comments that would incite violence.”

Rice pointed out that City Council meetings could still be viewed live on YouTube.

Members of the public can still offer comment in person, via email and through snail mail, said Del Norte County District 1 Supervisor Darrin Short, whose constituents live in the city.

Del Norte County stopped using Zoom earlier this year. According to Short, one reason for that was a savings of about $2,000 a year. He also acknowledged that someone mailing a letter to the City Council may run the risk if it not reaching their representatives until after a meeting, Short said there are still opportunities for them to be heard.

“There is an opportunity as a legislative body to realize that something you have ruled on can be brought back for discussion later and that’s through a suspension of the rules and a motion to reconsider,” Short said. “I embrace what the county decided. These opportunistic people that call in and spew their disgusting opinions is in my opinion something we should try to avoid in this professional arena.”

Ethan Lawton, a planner with SHN who’s contracted to work with Crescent City, told councilors they’re not the only ones who have experienced Zoombombing.

“I would encourage the Council members to remember the city’s values and mission and vision in this decision, and that many jurisdictions have made decisions either way,” Lawton said. “We staff appreciate the opportunity for the public to comment, but we’re also cautious and many of us don’t want to be exposed to different things that are becoming more of a trend.”

Greenough, who called the March 4 attack reprehensible and disgusting, stated that “unfortunately in our society that speech is protected.” Allowing public engagement via Zoom increases transparency and increases the opportunity for the Council’s constituents to hold them accountable, he argued.

Greenough also argued that if it wasn’t for Zoom, Crescent City’s voter-approved 1 percent sales tax, Measure S, wouldn’t have succeeded.

“There were a lot of people that came to our meetings that probably wouldn’t have been there,” he said. “I understand the difficulties of sitting here as a public official and the embarrassment of listening to these people spout their garbage, but I do believe there’s positive feedback that we need to have coming into us through this platform.”

Greenough said he was also frustrated that there wasn’t a Zoom link available for the Monday’s meeting.

Inscore took responsibility for that decision, saying he consulted with Altman who supported him in not having Zoom available for Monday’s meeting. He said he was wondering whether Zoom had outlived its usefulness even before the two Zoombombing attacks occurred.

“Part of that was also watching the Zoom audience,” he said. “There’s been many a meeting, and most of us don’t have Zoom on at the time, but there’s been many a meeting where Supervisor [Valerie] Starkey and Supervisor Short were the only two people on for the majority of the meeting.”

Inscore, whose spouse is African American, said it was difficult for him to neutral and acknowledge that while the person saying reprehensible things is hateful they have a right to speak. He said he believes the City Council has a responsibility to be accessible to their constituents.

“By and large, those constituents represent the people in Crescent City and Del Norte County, not where ever you could be tuning in from on Zoom,” Inscore said. “So I’m frustrated and I’m personally very offended for a lot of people including my own household. I want to do the right thing. I’m just not clear there’s a perfect right answer on this.”

The seven individuals who commented via Zoom on March 4 were not local, though they began their statements by addressing potential sewer rate increases and potential proclamations Councilors would vote on.

The incident occurred after the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism in August reported an increase in antisemitic speech at City Council meetings. In December, the organization recorded more than 140 attacks nationwide.

The harassment prompted some local governments to discontinue virtual public comments, according to the ADL.


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