SALEM — The City Council entered a new era Thursday night when it called to order, set aside money for COVID-19 pandemic response and squashed bad actors in the stream’s chat, all without ever being in the same room.
The City Council held its second regular meeting Thursday night using the video conferencing and webinar platform Zoom. The meeting was attended with only one councilor — President Bob McCarthy — present in the Council chambers. The body’s 10 other members attended remotely from other locations across the city, with one councilor — Tim Flynn, representing Ward 4 — using a virtual background of a waving American flag throughout the meeting. A couple of the meeting attendees, including City Clerk Ilene Simons and Ward 5 Councilor Josh Turiel, attended from other rooms in City Hall.
“I just want to thank everyone this evening for this first endeavor into a virtual meeting,” McCarthy said as the deliberative session closed. “I know it isn’t going to be our last, but I hope it isn’t one of many, many, many.”
The ongoing coronavirus issue is forcing households to work and educate from home, while government bodies must take their efforts online. The moves have come amid concerns about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and meeting members spreading it to each other by being in the same room.
Arthur Sargent, an at-large councilor who often jokes about the complexity of technology, said his attendance was “a minor miracle. Thank God for my children.”
Things started with a pretty large hiccup, however, when a chat function built into the stream allowed for viewers of the meeting to comment in real-time, prompting a wave of obscene messages that included several uses of the N-word, many with words of an anti-Semitic nature and others targeting or addressing various city councilors.
The offensive chats were visible to all residents watching the meeting online, and they weren’t addressed at all throughout the meeting.
“As soon as we were made aware of it, someone who knew what they were doing got into it and stopped the chat feature,” McCarthy said after the meeting. “It was our first meeting. I apologize to anyone who was offended by it. It wasn’t our intent.”
Turiel, a city councilor who owns a tech-related business and was on-site to help with issues, said the session was inadvertently set up with chat enabled for all attendees. However, the system also allows hosts to track down who is responsible for sending chat messages, “and I suspect we will do so.”
With about 50 messages sent, “I’d say about 5 to 10 of them were not spewed obscenities, and the remainder were from a few different sock puppets,” Turiel continued. “The sock puppets were mainly being kicked off, and they were unable to continue posting, and ultimately, chat was shut down entirely.”
Salem Police Capt. Fred Ryan said police would speak with the city’s IT department Friday morning “to go over it.” It remains unclear whether police will investigate, at least until “we can look into what actually happened.”