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Racial slurs shut down Jackson council's Zoom comments

Council scrambled Monday to react to slurs, after trolls hit Victor meeting in November.

JACKSON - Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson shut down online public comment midway through Monday night's council meeting after one commenter started shouting slurs.

The incident follows a similar "Zoombombing" incident that prompted the Victor City Council to reexamine how the Idaho municipality handles virtual participation.

The Jackson Town Council was taking public comment via Zoom about a proposal to allow four-story buildings in more neighborhoods. Initially, the individual appeared to be commenting on that proposal.

"Hello, everyone. My name is Alexis, Alexis Weaver," the commenter said. "I actually oppose this entire development plan because humans aren't meant to be packed into a can like sardines."

Then the commenter started describing how much space bears and wolves require and discussed parks, mental health and parking before using a racial slur. The mayor interrupted, stating, "We like to maintain this as a safe space for all."

The commenter shot back: "What about a safe space for European-descended Americans, white European Americans, the most important race on Earth?"

Then the commenter started shouting racial slurs and swearing before being cut off.

The mayor took one more comment from a known Jackson resident before taking a break and deciding to end Zoom comments for the rest of the evening. The council still took comments in person, and the remaining agenda items will have future opportunities for public input, Morton Levinson said, adding that the town wanted to take time to shore up its Zoom process given the outburst.

In 2020, as videoconferencing took off during the global pandemic, trolls and hackers started hijacking virtual meetings by inserting lewd, obscene, racist and antisemitic materials or comments into the online gatherings, forcing them to shut down - dubbed "Zoombombing." Organizations have responded by tightening up protocols and educating users on how to plan for and respond to such attacks.

On Nov. 8, the Victor council was taking input toward the end of its regular meeting when three participants made public comments over the city's Zoom account. The comments contained anti-Muslim and antisemitic rhetoric. City Manager Jeremy Bresbis said council members and Victor Mayor Will Frohlich became uncomfortable after the first person spoke but didn't want to stifle public participation, so they allowed more people to speak.

But the comments escalated in tone and ferocity. After the third person started making similar comments, this time raising their voice and yelling, the mayor instructed staff to turn off the virtual meeting. The event confirmed for Bresbis that the city should make a shift in procedures. The council set new guidelines last month limiting Zoom comments.

The city will continue to offer virtual and in-person city meetings, including for planning and zoning and a variety of other volunteer and committee boards. But members of the public wishing to offer public comment will have to pre-register with the city prior to those meetings.

"That's where we landed," Bresbis said Tuesday. "We will still do a hybrid community format."

Bresbis said he and Mayor Frohlich had discussed the idea of pushing the public toward participating more in person and through written public comments prior to the "Zoombombing" incident, and that those comments were usually more composed.

He also said managing Zoom comments could be a lot for work for city staff to manage during a regular meeting.

But the nonprofit planning and development watchdog Valley Advocates for Responsible Development pushed back on the decision in a Jan. 3 letter.

"While the incident preceding this decision was deeply disturbing, it is unfair to expect the community to bear a burden that belongs solely on those who perpetrated the incident," wrote Niki Richards, VARD executive director. "Efforts to continually strive for greater transparency and community participation means barriers to easily participate in public hearings should be nonexistent. Alternative solutions are available for the city to better protect the integrity of virtual involvement. So, the decision to curtail all Zoom participation is like using a sledgehammer for a fix that a screwdriver is equipped to handle."

Bresbis disagreed.

"The quality of comment is better in written form or in person," he said. "There are always barriers in public comment."

Jackson Mayor Levinson said she ended public comment abruptly Monday as a precaution to make sure the town's Zoom system hadn't been compromised. She pledged the town would shore up the system, if needed.

This story was published on January 10, 2024.

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