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Grosse Ile — A video meeting of the Grosse Ile Township board of trustees was cut short Monday night after multiple people made inappropriate racially or sexually charged remarks during the public comment period.

Brian Loftus, township supervisor, said Monday's session was the first township board meeting held via Zoom, the video conferencing technology. While he hailed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for giving government boards flexibility to hold remote meetings during the coronavirus outbreak, the technology was a bit hard to handle that first time.

More: Whitmer directive allows for electronic public meetings to slow COVID-19 spread

"It was a learning experience for everybody," Loftus said. 

Prior to public comment, the meeting was pretty much normal, or at least new-normal, Loftus said. The most important piece of business was appointing township firefighter Kevin Langley as interim fire marshal.

Then the meeting was opened up to public comment, as required by law.

"Our aspiration was we would have intelligent adults making comments, asking questions they needed answers to, or ideas on how to make the township run better," Loftus said. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen."

Township trustee James Budny says three men spoke during public comment.

Only about 20 people were in the conference, including Loftus, the four trustees and township staff, Loftus said. The participants were either at home or in separate rooms of the government building.

"Should I avoid Chinese people?" the first public commenter asked, Budny said, and Loftus cut him off.

The second man mentioned Asian massage parlors, and Loftus cut him off too. 

After the third offered his name as "Dan D---head," Budny said, Loftus ended public comment and called the meeting to a close.

"It's like vandalism," Loftus told The News Tuesday. "It serves no public good. I'd say it was juvenile, but I don't want to insult young people."

"I don't know if they were together," Budny said. "It kind of sounded like they were, that they had this plan. It made for an interesting meeting."

"I couldn't control these external disruptions, so I terminated the meeting," Loftus said.

As America begins an era of remote work, video conferencing has grown in use. But sometimes, disruptive users will enter and derail a meeting, a practice known as "Zoom bombing."

A March 27 story in Forbes laid out one nightmare Zoom-bombing scenario:

Picture the scene: You are logging into a business meeting using the popular online video app Zoom. Once into the Zoom meeting, each participant starts to introduce themselves, until, suddenly, screaming–and an uninvited young woman appears waving manically at the screen. 

This is the new COVID-19 reality: If you are using Zoom without the right precautions, you are vulnerable to a practice known as “Zoom-bombing.” 

And it's not just neophytes to technology who face this threat. The Information, a technology publication based in tech hub San Francisco, had a meeting Zoom-bombed recently by a user who switched between accounts so as to avoid being blocked, the Forbes piece said. 

Zoom's website has a guide offering users tips on how to avoid being Zoom-bombed.

"The first rule of Zoom Club: Don’t give up control of your screen," the Zoom blog explains. Among the options users have for keeping unwanted guests out are "locking" out people from joining after the meeting has started, requiring two-factor identification, disabling video, and turning off the ability for users to transfer files.

In a statement to The Detroit News, Zoom said: 

“We take the security of Zoom meetings seriously and we are deeply upset to hear about the incidents involving this type of attack. For those hosting large, public group meetings, we strongly encourage hosts to review their settings and confirm that only the host can share their screen. For those hosting private meetings, password protections are on by default and we recommend that users keep those protections on to prevent uninvited users from joining. We encourage users to report any incidents of this kind directly to https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/requests/new so we can take appropriate action.”

Loftus, township supervisor since 2008, said the public nature of meetings means they has to be open to users. In-person disruptions are "rare," he noted.

"One person out of line, in a room full of people who won't tolerate it, it just doesn't go over well," Loftus said. 

That dynamic doesn't exist via video, he said.

But every meeting can't be cut short, Loftus said, adding he will have to become more skilled in using the technology. He believes the behavior that ended Monday's session constitutes the disruption of a public meeting.

"We're going to find ways of tracking every input" going forward, Loftus said. "If somebody wants to do disruptive behavior, he's going to be met with law enforcement."

jdickson@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @downi75

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