In what Mayor Jeff Gee calls a “proactive step” to avoid “vile, racist, anti-semitic” comments and disruptions ahead of council meetings, the city of Redwood City has overhauled its procedures, allowing only email or in-person comments during meetings.
The city will no longer allow virtual comments. The policy will be reevaluated in January 2024.
“This was a proactive step to try to minimize that from coming to Redwood City,” Gee said. … "We're trying to figure out how to not have our communities intimidated by others who want to espouse hate and a number of other less-desirable traits.”
The announcement to change public comment protocols came just 72 hours before Monday’s council meeting.
At Monday's council meeting, resident Rona Gundrum, who appeared in person, told the city council that the new procedures placed a burden on the public by making them sift through lengthy agenda materials and send emails within a short time, restricting people from commenting in real-time after hearing presentations or responding to a previous speaker.
In an emailed comment sent ahead of Monday's meeting, resident Carrie Bloomquist asked the city council to explain who was responsible for the decision to change the public comment procedure. She emphasized the importance of free speech and expressed unease about what content and speech are acceptable.
But other commenters agreed with the decision.
Resident Nick Chiochios said he applauded the city council's efforts to change the protocols.
"Restricting real-time commenting is not free speech suppression," he wrote.
According to Gee, the city "has had two past incidents of 'zoom bombing.'" He added that it has also happened on another board he's on.
Gee said other public officials he’s spoken with are also reviewing their public comment procedures.
In Atherton on Sept. 20, the city council meeting was bombarded with attendees who filled the Zoom call with hate-laden, antisemitic speech and images.
According to our sister site, The Almanac, the ambush began when an antisemitic image appeared on the screen, and later, commenters continued to disrupt the meeting on Zoom with racist comments and by using profanities.
Other media reported similar disruptions in nearby cities.
In San Carlos, “Zoombombers” called into the city council meeting on Sept. 25 and dropped “racist, antisemitic and Islamaphobic” comments, according to the Daily Post. In Pacifica, several people called in to the city council meeting to deliver antisemitic comments and used the phrase “white power,” according to the Pacifica Tribune.
According to David Loy, legal director for the First Amendment Coalition, a virtual public comment option is required if, "in terms of letter of the law, one or more city council members are participating virtually." If all council members are present in person, there's no need for a virtual comment option.
“I think they should, frankly, because it does better promote the opportunity for the public to participate, and obviously, it's very, very unfortunate when people use remote comments to say hateful things,” Loy said. “I think it'd be unfortunate to allow a few bad actors to deprive the general public of the opportunity to participate remotely because that's actually a significant advantage to sit in participation when people cannot always attend in public.
“When you cut off remote comments, that, ironically, may disproportionately impact the people that we’re reportedly trying to protect,” he said, adding that low-income and people of color may rely on the use of the virtual options.
According to the Ralph M. Brown Act, government agencies are required to provide a specific time for public comment during public meetings. The public must be told how they can comment, but they can't be forced to comment before the meeting. However, written comments can still be made before the meetings start. The Brown Act also specifies that public officials cannot make any decisions if technical issues stop the public from accessing the meeting. Attendees do not have to disclose their locations during virtual meetings, according to the Brown Act.
“I think it's just terrible that the cities that have had this happen have (had) to put a warning sign on their videos or their meetings,” Gee said.
Gee also acknowledged challenges with virtual public comment, such as controlling and verifying the identity or intent of online attendees, adding that a city council meeting was unlike a “talk show,” and a moderator could not screen callers.
The Brown Act does not require attendees or callers to disclose their identities, Loy said, adding that the law does allow the city to use a log to coordinate the order of speakers.
He added that while some speech can be negative, pre-screening or deciding what's acceptable paves the way for potential unchecked censorship.
"I realize that some speech can be hateful and abusive...," Loy said. "But it's very dangerous to start giving the government the power to decide what speech is acceptable."
Gee said that anyone who has a suggestion for a “halfway step” for making public comments should email him.
“We're all struggling with trying to find the right balance between receiving public comment and allowing it to come virtually and, at the same time, prevent abuses,” Gee said. “And this is what I would call what's happening in the state and throughout our communities. An extreme case of abuse of public comment.”
What are the New Procedures for Public Comment?
- Residents wishing to provide public comments for City Council meetings have two avenues: in person or via email at email@example.com
- Although City Council meetings remain accessible for public viewing on Zoom, attendees will no longer have the facility to offer comments through the platform.
- Should the city receive an email with a public comment by 5 p.m. on the meeting day, which either relates to an item on the agenda or is a general comment falling within the city's purview, it will be vocalized during the council meeting. It's important to note that every public comment is regarded as a public record.