The remote portion of Blaine City Council meetings has been suspended as a preventative measure after a ‘Zoombomber’ spouted racial slurs during its October 23 meeting.
Mayor Mary Lou Steward made the decision in mid-November to immediately stop remote meetings, and deputy city manager/city clerk Sam Crawford said he anticipates city council will vote on how meetings are conducted in the future.
“[In-person only meetings] worked before,” Steward said. “There shouldn’t be any problems if we don’t have Zoom and people can still get in touch with us.”
City staff have been unable to determine who caused the disruption at the October 23 meeting, when an anonymous Zoom attendee(s) loudly repeated the N-word slur during a public hearing. City staff quickly muted the account, but the disrupter joined again under a different username and unmuted themselves to continue repeating the slurs.
Crawford, who oversees Zoom participating during council meetings, reported the accounts’ hate speech to Zoom, and Zoom concluded in an email that the issue was resolved in early November.
While there are still a lot of unknowns around the disruption, Crawford said the incident could be connected to other public meetings in Washington state experiencing ‘Zoombombings’ from AI-generated bots shouting hate speech.
According to the Walla Walla Union Bulletin newspaper, College Place City Council had a similar incident during an October 24 public hearing on property tax revenue. Officials believe an AI-generated bot appearing to be a virtual speaker gave a name and address before spouting antisemitic language. After the speaker was kicked out of the meeting, another speaker gave a name and address before repeatedly unmuting themselves and shouting sexist and racial slurs.
KOIN 6 News reported that Beaverton City Council, just outside of Portland, Oregon, experienced what city officials believed were AI-generated bots disrupting its October 3 meeting with racial slurs.
Steward said she grew concerned after seeing those public agencies in Washington and Oregon battle what they believed were AI bots.
The mayor said city council worked well before it started using a remote option during the pandemic and that the public hadn’t provided comments over Zoom during the most recent meetings. Steward added she was also concerned that a speaker wouldn’t have their comment recorded during a public hearing if the city had technology difficulties.
“AI can be used for very good uses, and it can be used for very bad uses,” Steward said. “And this is one very harmful use.”
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