Bangor is the latest Maine community considering how to stop people from delivering hateful messages via Zoom during the public comment portion of municipal meetings.
Bangor city councilors on Monday discussed options the city has to prevent future “Zoom bombing” episodes, similar to what councilors witnessed during a Sept. 11 council meeting, without taking away residents’ right to offer public comments.
The city is one of several communities in Maine and nationwide that has had hybrid public meetings hijacked by people spewing hate-filled messages and conspiracy theories via Zoom. Those interruptions have been linked to a few national extremist groups that encouraged followers to spread antisemitic, white supremacist and anti-LGBTQ+ narratives.
“It is totally unacceptable for public comments to be going in that direction and I think we’re all in agreement that we’re not going there and will shut you down,” Council Chair Rick Fournier said. “Typically, we have the police chief here to escort people out of council chambers if something happens.”
Bangor councilors considered moving the public comment portion of each meeting to the end of meetings to stop such interruptions, but councilors worried this would give residents the impression that the city wanted to prevent them from sharing their questions and concerns.
“Public comments now start at 7:30 p.m. and meetings can end any time between 7:45 to 10 p.m., so asking people to sit by and wait, especially on Zoom, for whenever the meeting might be over isn’t fair,” Councilor Clare Davitt said.
Councilors also wondered whether the city could require people attending meetings via Zoom to register with their real name and address so attendees could not conceal their identities. Currently, people who join Zoom meetings can label themselves as anything.
While Bangor councilors didn’t make any decisions during their discussion on Monday, city staff will still be monitoring the meetings and have the option to mute participants if they begin sharing inappropriate or hateful messages, as happened when the council meeting was interrupted on Sept. 11.
None of the options discussed on Monday would restrict the public’s ability to join council meetings or offer public comments via Zoom or in person. This differs from measures some Maine communities have adopted.
Rockland removed the option to attend council meetings via Zoom after being the victim of a Zoom bombing incident similar to Bangor’s earlier this month.
Hallowell councilors decided to have online meeting attendees enter a waiting room on Zoom before joining the meeting so the city can review who is trying to join the meeting. Hallowell Mayor George Lapointe also has the ability to mute and remove people from the meeting at his desk if needed.
The Portland City Council barred remote participation at a Tuesday workshop about homeless encampments and has considered halting its hybrid meeting model after Andrew Zarro, a councilor and mayoral candidate, was the target of homophobic attacks via Zoom.