Meetings held over conferencing platforms — such as Zoom — might be the preferred way to do business these days, but they are not always fool-proof, as a public meeting held by the Port of South Whidbey demonstrated this week.
About 15 minutes into the Tuesday afternoon meeting, while port leaders were discussing plans for the fairgrounds kitchen, a large number of users joined the online discussion and co-opted it.
Videos of pornography and Confederate flags were shared on the screens of the new attendees, many of whom adopted screen names not suitable for print. In some cases, the attendees unmuted their microphones and spoke, taunting the officials or repeatedly uttering racial slurs.
The port ended the meeting abruptly and agreed to reschedule business for a special session next week, with the goal of strengthening security.
Port Commissioner Curt Gordon said he did not recognize any of the people who disrupted the meeting.
“I have no idea what that was about,” he said. “I would love to know.”
He added that it is unclear how many individuals interrupted the meeting. Hacking may have played a role, but that is also unclear at this time.
It was the first port meeting Gordon remembers being shut down completely, though he recalled several other close calls from over the years.
Online public meetings, he said, have had their advantages and disadvantages.
On the one hand, they have provided accessibility to people who may not normally attend in-person.
On the other hand, they open the door for anyone in the world to join.
He is hopeful the port will find a way to host meetings where the public can still speak on topics the port is discussing, rather than getting derailed from people uninvolved with the meeting.
“It’s a new world and we still want to be open and transparent and we’re going to pay the price,” he said.
Port Executive Director Stan Reeves said in an email that a group of people took advantage of the fact that the port’s meetings previously enabled people to unmute their microphones and turn on their cameras whenever they wanted.
That will not be the case at future meetings.
“Unfortunately, going forward we will implement greater security measures that will restrict public participation to only those portions of the meeting required by law; everyone will still be able to hear and see the commissioners and staff, but individuals will only have their microphone/video enabled during the ‘public comment’ period of our regular meetings, and then only one person at a time,” Reeves said.
“At all other times they will be muted with their video upload disabled.”