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Helena looking at options after online commission meeting disrupted by "Zoom-bombing"

Posted at 5:57 PM, Jun 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-24 14:43:33-04

HELENA — The city of Helena is looking at its procedures for online meetings, after Monday’s regular city commission meeting was repeatedly disrupted and eventually postponed.

The commission was set to finalize the next year’s budget and approve an updated city growth plan during the Zoom videoconference. However, just after 7 p.m., the meeting was interrupted multiple times by people shouting, playing loud music and displaying pornographic images.

City leaders apologized for the incident.

“I know there was a great deal of public participation last night for both the budget and the growth policy and other public comment, so it was disappointing for sure,” said interim City Manager Melinda Reed.

These disruptions, commonly called “Zoom-bombings,” have been reported by numerous local governments since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to move meetings online.

Reed said Helena has procedures for stopping this type of intrusion – muting all participants and limiting who can display their screen during a call. She said those methods worked when a previous city meeting was disrupted, but when they tried to take the same steps Monday, the city clerk’s computer had technical issues.

“We had a number of disruptions that we were able to stop, but then they kept happening, and that is when we were no longer able to stop them,” said Reed.

Leaders are now working with the joint city-county Information Technology and Services Department to determine exactly what happened – and how to stop it from happening again. Reed said, at this time, they don’t believe there was any actual security risk from the incident.

The city commission is now set to take up the remaining items from Monday’s agenda at a special meeting on June 29. That meeting is also set to be online. Reed said they are planning to use Zoom again, but they may consider other platforms.

“I think we will be able to improve some of our systems in order to prevent something like this from happening again,” she said. “If we are unable to feel confident in Zoom as a platform, we will look into other options.”

Reed said, so far, city leaders haven’t had discussions about when they could return to in-person meetings.

“I think there are some real benefits to the public for the online platform,” she said. “I think it does increase accessibility – or it can – so I think we would like to continue to explore the use of Zoom and other platforms like this for now.”