SCHENECTADY — The intersection of the coronavirus and Black Lives Matter movement have garnered headlines over whether large-scale protests lead to an uptick in cases.
Now the two seismic events are on a crash course on another front: Digital disruption of the government meetings that have gone virtual as a result of the global health pandemic.
As activists demanding police reform surrounded City Hall on July 13, they swarmed the City Council’s online meeting with phone calls and comments as a disruptive tactic.
“They ended up shutting down the meeting,” said All of Us co-founder Jamaica Miles.
Activists again made their presence known on Monday when roughly a dozen people left comments supportive of the grassroots organization’s demands for police reform on the YouTube channel streaming the meeting.
“This is a rare opportunity for local government to take a difficult situation and show through transparency, honesty, and action that they are truly for a more just community,” wrote Patrick Shower. “I stand with All of Us.”
But the city is struggling to accommodate the surge of online engagement.
On Monday, the sound cut out for the duration of the half-hour meeting, and activists resorted to largely shouting into the void.
While the audio issues were not directly related to the surge in comments, problems arose after the city abruptly changed which software they utilize to provide public access.
Open Stage Media, the city’s media partner, attributed the issues to an unforeseen technical “glitch” stemming from streaming two events at the same time on two different YouTube channels.
Open Stage Media Station Director Zebulon Schmidt said he prepared all day for the duel events, which are rare. But as soon as the City Council meeting went live, the audio cut out.
“Basically, YouTube is not the best way to do it,” Schmidt said.
The snafu comes after the city quietly changed the format for accessing remote meetings, one they’ve been using largely without incident since mid-March when Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended the in-person requirements for government meetings.
Activists disrupted the July 13 meeting by calling into Webex, software that allows members of the public to participate after being provided a phone number, access code and password.
But last week, the city Clerk’s Office, which works with the City Council to facilitate the meetings, restricted public access to Webex and instead began streaming the meetings on YouTube, a measure which strips away the ability for members of the public to participate.
The change was abruptly announced 30 minutes before last week’s meeting and no explanation was given.
City Clerk Samanta Mykoo didn’t say if activists prompted the change and directed questions to City Council President John Mootooveren, who didn’t return a request for comment on Tuesday.
“I can’t say why that was the reason I was told to change the agenda or how everyone has access to it,” Mykoo said.
Mootooveren denied the shift was related to activists last week, calling it a suspected “glitch.”
City Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo said she wasn’t privy to the reasons for changing public access, but wouldn’t be surprised if it was because of the activists.
In the pre-coronavirus era, members of the public could go to City Council meetings and speak as “privilege of the floor,” or going to the rail to deliver a monologue on city business or other issues.
But that option was reserved for a designated timeframe during the meeting.
“I think if the protesters had listened and not continually interrupted the meeting so we could have a conversation and conduct our business, that option wouldn’t have been removed,” Perazzo said.
Perazzo also said the digital form of activism may be counterproductive because unlike Webex, lawmakers are unable to see the YouTube comments in real time.
Regardless of the reason for the change, the problems have led to a mounting sense of concern about public participation, including from neighborhood leaders who attempted to tune into the meeting.
“It was impossible to access the meeting in any meaningful way,” said Tom Carey, president of Schenectady United Neighborhoods.
Carey wondered about the implications for open and transparent government, noting the agenda did contain important city business.
Among them were public hearings on amendments to the city’s affirmative action plan and how the city will allocate Community Development Block Grant funding, both of which have proven to be lightning rods for controversy.
“There’s no realistic opportunity for a resident or interested party to have any input into the [City] Council meetings,” Carey said.
Under state law, localities must accept public comment during public hearings, but are not required to allow the public to weigh in at regular meetings.
Since mid-March, the City Council has accepted public comment, but only via email.
“But that’s different from being able to stand up and speak at a meeting,” Carey said.
YouTube comments are not considered to be formal comments for the record, but Mykoo acknowledged receiving numerous emails from activists that will be included in the official record.
Miles, the All of Us co-founder, lamented that the audio issues prevented supporters of police reform from receiving acknowledgement for their comments, as well as the submission of a formal petition containing over 500 signatures supporting their demands.
The problem, she said, is entirely self-inflicted.
“They created a problem that didn’t exist in the first place,” Miles said. “City meetings are supposed to be transparent and accessible to the community. So now, twice they were not.”
Schmidt said Open Stage Media is working on ensuring back-up recordings to prevent a repeat occurrence.
Kristen O’Neill, assistant executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said there’s no playbook for what happens when technical problems mar municipal meetings in the COVID-19 era.
“It’s not addressed by statute and courts haven’t weighed in because it’s such a narrow issue,” O’Neill said.
The city Corporation Counsel’s Office rendered an opinion that it believes it complied with state requirements.
City Corporation Counsel Andrew Koldin said despite audio issues, the city is compliant “so long as the meeting was recorded and later transcribed.”
“From speaking with City Clerk Mykoo, the meeting was recorded and a transcription of the recording will be completed,” Koldin said.
Miles said All of Us will continue to be vocal advocates for reform, whether digitally or otherwise.
“We will continue to be present in every way, shape, form and fashion until the mayor, City Council, police chief and everyone else acknowledges our existence, our voice, our demands and move forward into putting them into an agenda that realizes the police harm that exists in our communities,” Miles said.
The city last week rolled out a task force guiding state-mandated police reform process and Chief Eric Clifford has said city police won’t comment on their reforms until a series of broader community conversations are held.
Cuomo’s executive order governing online meetings expires Aug. 5, but it doesn’t preclude localities from having in-person meetings if they opt to do so.
Mykoo directed questions about whether the city will resume them to Mootooveren.
“It’s frustrating for everyone,” said Perazzo on the inability to meet in person, “including me.”