“Visual Pornography” Disrupts City Council’s First Virtual Meeting

Peter Blake was the only councilmember on the dais during the March 31 meeting of the Laguna Beach City. The Council Chambers were closed to the public and press. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The Laguna Beach City Council got a rude introduction to cyberspace at its first virtual meeting Tuesday when “visual pornography” was displayed to those who joined a public Zoom call to share their comments.

This jarring nuisance was experienced by governing boards across the nation this week as public agencies transitioned their meetings online to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. For the first time in recent memory, the Council Chambers’s doors were locked to the public and press during Tuesday’s meeting.

The interruption occurred about 28 minutes into the meeting as City Manager John Pietig announced via phone that the closures City hall, parks, beaches, athletic fields, trailheads, and trolleys will be closed through at least April 30.

Indiscernible audio feedback started playing for several seconds while Gavin Curran, director of administrative services, attempted to isolate the offensive caller.

“Jesus Christ. Oh my…,” an unidentified male said before Zoom’s female robotic voice cut in to say “you are muted.”

Pietig chimed in that someone was posting an inappropriate message and asked Curran to put a stop to it.

“It’s very disappointing that someone would do that,” Pietig said. “Very inappropriate.”

Mayor Bob Whalen apologized to the participating public for being subjected to the digital pornographic display.

“I don’t know if we have an ability to track that call but if we can I’d like our police to look into that right away,” Mayor Bob Whalen said.

Laguna Beach police Capt. Rachel Johnson and Sgt. David McGill then entered the council chambers to check-in on the problem.

“There should be a cop in there,” McGill said as he entered the chambers.

Curran attempted to relaunch the Zoom meeting at least once but additional audio feedback forced Whalen to terminate the call. From that point, Laguna Beach residents could watch on Cox Cable channel 852. The rest of the public was able to watch a single-camera via the city’s Livestream service, Granicus, which offered spotty or non-existent service during the previous council meeting.

Under the existing system, community members can email their comments to the City Clerk’s Office by noon on the day of the council meeting. City Clerk Lisette Chel-Walker then summarizes the comments during the related item.

Zoom was supposed to allow the public to queue up and verbally express themselves. It’s unclear if the system will return at the April 7 council meeting.

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