By Dave Russell
The Sylva town board cut short its 9 a.m. meeting last Thursday due to an apparent hacker co-opting town clerk Amanda Murajda’s computer and using racist and other foul language. After several board members offered their reports to the board, a male voice began shouting racist words while town board member David Nestler spoke.
On the agenda was a resolution put forth by Nestler calling for the removal of the Confederate monument overlooking the town. The board had set aside three-minute windows for comment on the monument and the resolution.
More than 30 people were in virtual attendance via Zoom or phone, some were expected to share opinions on the resolution during the board’s discussion of the resolution, Murajda said.
At about 11 minutes into the meeting, Murajda requested everyone to stay muted, or unable to be heard, in the meeting.
Nestler was the first to notice someone was interrupting the meeting when what sounded like a few coughs were heard while he was speaking.
“I don’t know if you have the authority to remove someone from this group if they violate the rules over and over again, but one person keeps un-muting themselves and interrupting, so you might want to look into that,” he said.
Murajda, who was at the controls of the Zoom platform, said everyone was muted.
“But at this point, I’ve got people coming on who I did not have on the list,” she said.
Suddenly, at about 14 minutes in, a young-sounding male voice said “Shut up, b****h” while Murajda was speaking.
He then began a rant including racist and profane language and repeating several times, “Black lives don’t matter.”
“You probably don’t even have any slaves, you’re poor,” the person said. “I have 25 child black slaves.”
Racist language continued, and after a period of silence from him, board member Mary Gelbaugh spoke up encouraging folks to shop local businesses.
Greg McPherson gave a short report, and then it was Ben Guiney’s turn.
“I guess we’ve now officially been Zoom-bombed,” Guiney said. “I’m surprised it took this long, and at least the person wasn’t naked or something, so moving right along ...”
Other Zoom meetings have been disrupted by unwelcome nude participants.
Guiney’s began a discussion of COVID-19 when a female voice began speaking unintelligibly at about 18 minutes into the meeting.
“Mayor, someone has taken over control of Amanda’s computer,” acting town manager Mike Morgan said.
Murajda said the hackers had put other photos in place of her own.
“I think we need to end this Zoom and start over,” Mayor Lynda Sossamon said. “Can we do that?”
The meeting was adjourned. The town sent emails out to invite attendees to a reconvened meeting.
When the meeting began again at about 10:15 a.m., board members and town attorney Eric Ridenour discussed how to move forward.
“I say we either let in only those people who are signed up to speak and try it, or we have to let everybody in, and I think that’s going to be a problem,” Ridenour said.
“I understand the point that if you signed up to speak obviously you can take part and if you didn’t it doesn’t really matter much if you watch it later,” Nestler said. “But it still doesn’t feel right, given the subject matter we’re planning on voting on.”
He called to cancel the meeting and call a special meeting in-person or on a more secure platform on Monday, he said.
“I don’t like the thought of excluding people,” he said.
After about 10 more minutes of discussion, Sossamon suggested holding an in-person meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday at a location to be determined.
Town staff would later change tack.
An early afternoon email from the town indicated they would try Zoom meeting again, set for 5:30 p.m. Monday.
The town later released a statement about the meeting.
“The scheduled 9 a.m. meeting began well but was soon digitally hijacked away from town staff’s control,” the release stated. “Attendees’ video feeds were replaced with other images, and multiple voices could be heard using vile and unacceptable language, largely comprised of racial slurs. Town staff was unable to mute the voices.
“If anyone has any information about the persons responsible for this, please call the Sylva Police Department or Jackson County Communications Center at 828-586-1911.”