The Portland City Council meets remotely March 30 via Zoom. Incidents in Bath and Falmouth have shown that remote meetings can be perilous for elected officials, who are still learning how to maintain control over virtual meetings while still allowing residents to weigh in on decisions.  Zoom video

The City Council chairwoman in Bath could hardly believe what she saw during her first online meeting. The Town Council chairwoman in Falmouth had no idea what was causing her colleagues’ shocked expressions.

Both had their inaugural online video council meetings Zoom-bombed – hijacked by people displaying pornography, lewd images or profane comments.

With stay-at-home and social-distancing orders in effect to slow the spread of the coronavirus, people are turning to video conference platforms like Zoom to keep in touch with loved ones, conduct city business and educate students. But remote meetings can be perilous for elected officials still learning how to maintain control over virtual meetings while allowing residents to weigh in on decisions.

People can join a virtual town meeting online by clicking on a link provided by the municipality, which can control the level of public participation. Some settings allow all participants to have their video feeds appear on the screens of all attendees, while others allow video feeds only from panelists or hosts to be shown.

An emergency declaration by Gov. Janet Mills allows municipal boards to meet by video, but they are still subject to state laws requiring their actions and deliberations take place in a public forum, and local rules require public hearings on certain items. That has opened up public meetings to a new threat – trolls spreading hate and pornography.

Provisions for nontraditional meetings are repealed 30 days after the state of emergency is terminated. They are in effect through May 14 but may be extended if Mills continues the state of civil emergency.

The incidents in Bath and Falmouth prompted the Cumberland Town Council to cancel its online meeting scheduled for Monday.

“In order to maintain proper meeting protocols while maximizing public participation, we are going to need to add and learn one more layer of protection to our software, and train ourselves and staff how to use the technology,” chairwoman Shirley Storey-King said. “Hopefully, we can get that done in the next few days.”

Falmouth Town Council Chairwoman Amy Kuhns described the hacker who disrupted the March 27 meeting with “lewd behavior” as “pretty sophisticated.” The intruder got into the meeting and displayed images without her or other meeting hosts knowing it.

“Their video feed wasn’t visible to the hosts of the meeting, so we couldn’t see what was happening,” Kuhns said. “But we became aware of the expressions on the faces of the people who were also in the meeting that something was going on.”

Town Manager Nathan Poore, who could not be reached Monday, described the experience in an email to his colleagues from other towns.

“I saw it and ordered the meeting (to) end immediately,” Poore wrote. “The Chair couldn’t see it and was wondering what (the) heck was wrong with me. It took about 5 more long seconds for me to yell at people to leave the meeting.”

Poore said attendees waited five minutes and then tried to resume the meeting. But the intruder returned.

Bath’s meeting got Zoom-bombed April 1. “It wasn’t an April’s fools joke,” Chairwoman Mari Eosco said. 

The council was about halfway through the meeting when a topless woman appeared on the screen, Eosco said.

“I was completely surprised, and my first instinct was to find that end-meeting button,” Eosco said. “I just sat there stunned for a minute.”

The FBI issued a warning about “teleconference hijacking” on March 30, after two incidents in Massachusetts schools. One involved someone hacking an online class and yelling a profanity and the teacher’s address, while the other involved an intruder showing Swastika tattoos.

The FBI urged anyone using platforms like Zoom to take precautions, including not posting dial-in information for meetings on public websites or social media platforms. The agency recommended hosts not make their meetings public for anyone to join and to make sure they’re using the latest version of the program, which has addressed some weaknesses.

Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, an advocacy group for towns, said he’s aware of only a few council meetings disrupted by hackers. The association has assembled a list of best practices on its website from Saco and South Portland.

Some of the steps South Portland has taken include using a virtual waiting room for participants, prohibiting screen-sharing, hiding video feeds of members of the public, disabling chat functions and allowing audio only for public comments, said City Manager Scott Morelli.

Portland has hosted two successful online City Council meetings so far.

Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director, said Portland upgraded its Zoom account to allow it to have a webinar, which is more like an online presentation than a public forum. That allows her to make councilors and staff “panelists” and have better control over the other meeting participants. She said it costs about $150 a month.

Grondin said the most recent meeting had roughly 140 people watching and the council heard live public comment from about a dozen. Members of the public are not allowed to use the video feature, and the comment function must be activated by a host.

“So far, that’s worked,” she said.

Eosco said the Bath council’s April 6 meeting would be open only to councilors and staff. The public could watch the meeting live but not offer comment. Residents were encouraged to submit comments via email before the meeting, she said.

Kuhns said Falmouth staff are working on ways to allow public comments for its next meeting. She said public input is crucial, especially as the town begins grappling with its budget.

“We are trying to figure out a way that’s as inclusive as possible for the community but one that protects the work of the council and the community from unwanted content,” she said.

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