Local Governments See Challenges and Success in Shift to Online Meetings

A “Zoom bombing” mired a recent Columbia Falls City Council meeting, but governments are mostly reporting a smooth transition

By Justin Franz
Zoom is videoconferencing service that has exploded in popularity amid the coronavirus outbreak. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Just like everyone, local municipal governments have had to take a crash course in online meeting platforms, with varying degrees of success.

In early April, hackers using vulgar language and pornographic images disrupted a Columbia Falls City Council meeting in what is called a “Zoom bombing,” a reference to the popular videoconference platform Zoom. In a “Zoom bombing,” unwelcomed guests disrupt an online meeting by taking over the screen and being generally disruptive. And Columbia Falls is not alone its struggles. Disruptions have been reported during government meetings all across the country, even derailing a U.S. House subcommittee meeting.

Technology experts have offered numerous tips on how to protect Zoom meetings, such as ensuring that meetings are password protected, only allowing the host to have screen-sharing capabilities or using a waiting room (where only the host and other panelists can let people “in” to the meeting).

The City of Whitefish moved to online meetings more than a month ago and was one of the first municipal governments in Northwest Montana to do so. Mayor John Muhlfeld said the city’s information technology department decided to use WebEX because it offered more security than other platforms.

“We’ve taken IT security very seriously at the city over the years and I believe we have a system in place that prevents (hacking incidents during meetings),” Muhlfeld said.

Muhlfeld said the city canceled what it deemed to be “non-essential” meetings when it declared a state of emergency in March. Currently, only city council, planning and architectural-review meetings are being held online.

One challenge of online meetings is the potential to complicate the public process, Muhlfeld said. However, the city is doing everything it ensure involvement by inviting the public to view the meetings online and by submitting public comment via email. Muhlfeld said every emailed public comment is read aloud during the meeting to be entered into the formal record.

“Just because the meeting is being held online doesn’t mean people can’t participate,” he said. “We want active participation because that translates to good government.”

Flathead County has also moved some meetings to online platforms and is having a third of the county’s 540 employees work from home, said County Administrator Mike Pence. Pence said the Flathead County Commission is continuing to meet as normal, although people are keeping their distance from each other during the sessions. Accommodations can be made for those who would prefer not to attend in person, Pence said, and they can usually be connected to the meeting by phone if prior arraignments are made.

For the most part, the county is asking the public to conduct their business with the county via phone or email. However, Pence said the county is trying to maintain the same level of service as they always do.

“If you have business with the county, it will be conducted,” he said.

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