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By Shawn Raymundo
City councilors were compelled to shut down the public comments section of the city’s YouTube channel during their meeting on Tuesday evening, March 2, when an anonymous poster, using racist-filled pseudonyms, continued to leave disparaging messages that mainly targeted Councilmember Laura Ferguson.
The commenter went by multiple names, including some that used derogatory language and racial slurs against African Americans. The series of posts prompted the council to take an emergency vote to close the chat function during the livestream of its regular meeting on YouTube.
Initially advocating that the city should leave the section open, Ferguson asked whether it was feasible for city staff monitoring the chat to remove the comments as they came in.
However, interim City Manager Erik Sund explained to the council that given the frequency of the comments, the city staff couldn’t manage the posts by continually deleting them, leaving the option to either let it continue or disable it for the night.
“It’s seems awfully convenient tonight, but, OK, I’m with you,” said Ferguson, who weeks ago had, during the previous council meeting, criticized a decision by city officials to have the public comments turned off.
“I really do value free speech; I just hope that as a result of what happened last night, we can get a handle on this and be able to, if there’s a way, to manage those negative, racist comments without censuring free speech,” Ferguson told the San Clemente Times the day after the meeting.
The posts were largely aimed at Ferguson, calling her an “old Hippie Hag,” while others were seemingly critical of coronavirus restrictions that stated: “99.7% survival rate for Covid.”
“These are meant to be distractions or put up roadblocks to deter me from the work I’m doing,” Ferguson said of the comments. “This rolls off. It’s just the nature of being an elected official. You have to have thick skin.”
The chat feature on YouTube has been a source of contention for the council that stems from a controversial Feb. 16 meeting—when councilors were supposed to meet in-person for the first time in almost a year.
The meeting, instead, took a quick turn as the councilors were directed to go home and convene the rest of the session virtually after Ferguson had refused to wear a face mask.
At the onset of the public portion of that meeting, following the closed session, Ward put Ferguson on notice for not wearing her mask, instructing her to do so or go home to continue the meeting over Zoom.
“We’re not going to move forward with the council meeting without everyone having a mask on as we chose to,” Ward said.
Pushing back, Ferguson opined that there was no need to wear a mask when there were several feet of physical distance between the councilors, as well as the plexiglass screens that were separating them.
“I wore my mask in the room with the councilmembers, and I am not going to wear my mask right here, because I have all the protocols in place around me,” Ferguson had said, referring to the council’s closed-session meeting. “There is no way that anybody can be harmed by me, and likewise me harmed by anyone else.”
Ward then motioned to pause the meeting and have the officials and other city staff go home to complete the meeting virtually. The motion passed in a 3-2 vote, with Ferguson and Councilmember Steven Knoblock objecting.
Prior to the vote, Ward noted that the city manager had spoken about the mask requirement during the early-February meeting when the in-person plans were announced, adding that the California JPIA, the city’s insurance pool, advised it as well.
A review of the Feb. 2 meeting showed that during the city manager’s announcements, Sund notified the council that the city would be moving forward with an in-person meeting for Feb. 16 and that one measure the JPIA had asked for “was that everyone wears a mask.”
When the council reconvened over Zoom later that night, controversy continued, as Ferguson was made aware by some residents that the chat function on the YouTube livestream was disabled, blocking would-be commenters from engaging in the forum as has been customary, even before the pandemic.
When Ferguson questioned why the forum was turned off, Ward replied that that it was because they had previously been live at the community center. Sund, illuminating on the subject, said he had briefed a majority of the council about disabling the chat for the in-person meeting.
Knoblock was quick to respond that he had never recalled such a conversation, but Ward said it happened at the beginning of the meeting. Ferguson later stated that she, too, was never briefed, while also raising the concern that the city was stifling free speech.
“We have to be able to vote on these things. They want to be able to talk,” she said. “We’re silencing them in the chat. I don’t believe our staff has the authority to take that.”
The discussion was sidelined when Ward instructed them to bring up the issue of enabling the chat for future meetings at a latter portion of the agenda, when councilors can make comments.
But as the night wore on, Knoblock again raised the question of whether the chat can be turned back on, to which Ward responded that her intention was for him or Ferguson to agendize the item for discussion during a previous portion of the meeting.
Knoblock argued that it shouldn’t be agendizable discussion; the function could just be flipped on by the city’s IT staff at the direction of the mayor.
Mayor Pro Tem Gene James asked Sund whether it was that simple, and Sund replied, “I’d have to talk to my IT people on the functionality of the chatroom after a stream has occurred.”
“I think the issue is that we started streaming … I think that’s what the issue is tonight, because the meeting has started,” Ward said. “It has nothing to do with not wanting to do it; it’s just how we are on this platform right now.”
Ferguson accused Ward of making incorrect statements, further arguing that “the chat can be turned on right now.”
“I do know that, for a fact, you’re giving excuses,” Ferguson said.
On Wednesday, March, 3, Ferguson pointed to the latest incident regarding the disparaging comments to note that the forum can be easily turned on and off during a livestream.
“It’s not complicated, but there’s proof last night that you can switch it off,” she said.
As of this posting, Sund had not responded to requests seeking comment. A request for comment to YouTube’s media inquiry email had not received a response as of Thursday afternoon, March 4.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.