Massachusetts Town Limits Public Meetings After Zoombombs

Milford, Mass., made the decision as part of an attempt to stop people from Zoombombing, or crashing public meetings with inappropriate images, videos, or audio, Milford leadership officials said.

by Alison Bosma, MetroWest Daily News / May 15, 2020
Shutterstock/Ink Drop

(TNS) — Boards and committees in Milford, Mass., are being asked to limit public comment at remote meetings.

"It's a learning curve, we're still learning this, we're taking baby steps," town attorney Charles Boddy said Monday night. "We don't need to jump in and take unnecessary risks, and when it comes to just allowing generally anyone, at any time to participate, it is an unnecessary risk."

The move is part of an attempt to stop people from Zoom bombing, or crashing public meetings with inappropriate images, videos, or audio, officials said. The advice, which includes limiting who can participate in videoconference meetings, is part of a memo from Boddy.

"I'd ask you to share your memo broadly with all boards and committees," Board of Selectmen Chairman William Buckley said, "so you can let them know the town's liability, and gives them guidance should they want to call you back and follow up with you."

Selectmen don't have the authority to establish directives across all public bodies, Buckley pointed out, meaning the distribution of the memo is not an order.

Government has been able to continue during the coronavirus pandemic through remote meetings of public bodies, usually through videoconferencing platforms like Zoom. Some boards in the region have allowed the public to access the same link or phone number members use to be part of a meeting.

When Franklin's Board of Health made the decision to require facial coverings last month, for example, members of the public were able to express their opinions by dialing into the meeting and letting the chairwoman know they wanted to be heard.

"If we are continuing to allow people ... unfettered ability to access, then we are taking unnecessary risks," Boddy said. "It would be wise to put some sort of parameters on it, and that's what this memo attempts to do."

The memo points to Federal Bureau of Investigations guidance, which suggests providing videoconference links to individuals, rather than publicly sharing the links. When using Zoom, the bureau suggests keeping screen-sharing in "host only" mode, updating to the more secure January 2020 version, and using passwords and waiting room features that control what guests can do.

The Milford memo emphasizes that those precautions, as well as using IT staff to monitor meetings, are not foolproof. On top of the federal guidance, it suggests residents should send comments in writing to a chairperson in advance of a public hearing.

"We still have invitation to speak," Boddy said, pointing to written comments. "... we don't have the immediate ability to shut down an interloper who decides to bombard us with offensive information."

There are only two IT employees who can monitor meetings and try to prevent or cut off attempts at Zoom bombing, he said.

"The last thing we need is for somebody to enter into our Zoom meeting and expose everyone who's watching to some of these illegalities," he said. "We do not have the resources right now to be able to fully staff and monitor each and every meeting. ... We're already struggling trying to get our technology up to par with the needs that we have to continue providing municipal services during this pandemic."

Milford superintendent Kevin McIntyre said there was a single incident of Zoom bombing early on, where someone shared inappropriate images or video with middle school students. The district was unable to identify the source, but additional security measures are now in place, he said.

Arguments over public participation in Milford meetings have brewed on a couple local Facebook pages, but Boddy said only one person submitted a complaint to him.

"I sound a little frustrated because I am, because this is something that keeps coming up, because we have one or two people in town that will try find any reason to throw stones at this board or certain members of it," Selectman William Kingkade said. "We have not shut down democracy."

Milford is in compliance with the post-COVID-19 modification to the Open Meeting Law, Boddy said. State law requires that the public have access to the meetings – meaning they can watch remote meetings broadcast on Milford TV and read minutes after – but does not require public participation beyond hearings.

Under Open Meeting Law, any individual who wishes to speak requires permission from the chairperson of the board, though the state encourages as much public participation "as time permits."

"Very simply stated, we walk a very difficult and delicate line between being transparent, being able to include the public in our meetings," Boddy said, "as well as being able to allow them to participate."

Public comment periods, where any member of the public can speak on nearly any topic, have been long-standing practice at local government meetings in the state.

Buckley said his board is looking to bring back a public comment period, also known as invitation to speak. He said new software or hardware upgrades could make that possible in "30 to 90 days."

©2020 MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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