KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — With many local governments holding public meetings online, new questions are emerging about how to handle internet trolls trying to hijack public comment.
The Kalamazoo City Commission held a special meeting Tuesday night to approve an emergency loan program for small businesses during the pandemic.
Several young men kept signing up to comment, making anti-Semitic remarks and using racial slurs.
“I really do appreciate it and want to thank you guys and kill ****** (N-word),” one man said.
People used names that appeared to be fake like “Harry Potter.” The racial slurs continued from someone who claimed he was 15 years old.
“I live in the city and my mom told me I should come here so I did, and I hate ****** (N-word),” he said.
Commissioners eventually voted not to allow public comment on agenda items and reduced public comments to 90 seconds per person at the end of the meeting.
City Manager Jim Ritsema says it appears someone had posted the meeting information in some type of online video game forum.
We don’t stand for this,” Ritsema said. “We need to work on creating an inclusive environment.”
Ritsema says they are reviewing procedures. It is unclear what local government can do to prevent this while still complying with current state and federal law.
The meeting was hosted by the online video platform Zoom. People interfering with these meetings is often referred to as “Zoombombing.”
“We’re trying to do good things for our community while we go through this crisis together and to have some kids, or whoever, interrupt that is inexcusable,” Ritsema said.
The Michigan Municipal League responded to our request for comment on the changes that allow these online meetings and responded with a statement:
“Our communities have essential work that requires a public meeting and opportunity for public comment. The Governor understood that and provided the ability to meet virtually while still safeguarding our citizens and staff during this COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately, even during these difficult times, some people put their own amusement above the public good. The First Amendment protects that speech even if it is distracting from local governments work for the greater good.”
The Kalamazoo City Commission has already approved additional temporary power for the city manager to sign contracts up to $5 million for budgeted items.
“We can continue under that authorization to keep the city running, so we have that at least in our back pocket,” Ritsema said.
The city manager says a decision has not yet been made about what to do concerning Monday’s regularly scheduled commission meeting.