Assembly looks to ways to meet in person again

Jun 6, 2020

People testify to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly during an in-person meeting. The borough assembly is looking for ways to begin meeting in person again while complying with social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Credit Jenny Neyman/KDLL

The borough assembly meeting on Tuesday was getting off to a usual start on Zoom, the video conference platform it’s been using for its meetings since the coronavirus pandemic started in March. A few minutes in, something surprised the assembly members.
 
An unidentified participant shared a screen with sexually explicit material showing, taking over the main screen on the assembly meeting for a few seconds. Assembly President Kelly Cooper and the borough staff shut it down fairly quickly and got back to business, locking down permissions on who can use video.

The borough is the latest victim of inappropriate material suddenly taking over a Zoom meeting, either intentionally or unintentionally, a phenomenon called “Zoom bombing.” As more businesses, governments, and schools moved online, the issue became more common, and privacy settings and passwords became more common to prevent bad actors from doing it on purpose.

Like most municipal governments, the borough assembly has been meeting online since the pandemic began taking off in Alaska in March. While the meetings allow for social distancing, they’re often plagued with technology issues, such as disconnection and feedback. At the assembly’s Wednesday meeting, member Jesse Bjorkman pushed for the borough staff to look into a way for them to meet in person, such as in a high school auditorium.

"My constituents, many of them are very adamant that they want easier, in-person access to the process," he said. "All I would like to do today is be able to talk about beginning to make a plan with the hope that we can have in-person access a month from now."

Bjorkman pointed to other government bodies meeting in person, such as the Kenai City Council, Soldotna City Council, and Anchorage Assembly. Assembly President Kelly Cooper said the borough’s assembly chambers were just not big enough to accommodate social distancing for the assembly members and the public—all nine members couldn’t fit on the dais.

Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship said her department and the IT department are already working on the issue, coming up with ideas of how to hold assembly meetings in person again.

"I know the Zoom process is clunky for you—imagine how it is for me," she said. "It's less than ideal. We definitely are working toward a plan to get us back to what our new version of normal is going to be."

The assembly went back and forth on whether or not it would be appropriate to meet in person again with the pandemic ongoing, particularly with cases increasing on the Kenai Peninsula, but eventually voted not to discuss it in detail on Wednesday. Most of the members agreed that it should be discussed, and they would plan to discuss it at the June 16 meeting.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.