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Vice Mayor wants to allow public comments by Zoom
Silveira on council
Vice Mayor Bret Silveira (second from right) wants the council to allow public comment via Zoom like prior to September 2023 when Zoom bombing occurred with racist callers. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Ceres Vice Mayor Bret Silveira signaled last week that he wants to see a return to allowing members of the public to provide input via Zoom during Ceres City Council meetings.

The COVID pandemic of 2020 and social distancing practices birthed a new practice of elected officials conducting business both remotely and allowing the public to watch and comment via the Zoom internet platform. Ceres continues to broadcast meetings live on Zoom but banned the public not in the room from commenting because of what happened last September.

 The City Council decided to “temporarily” ban the public from providing verbal comments at meetings through the Zoom platform after two Zoom callers pranked the council and uttered inflammatory racist comments during the Sept. 25, 2023 City Council meeting.

At the time Ceres City Attorney Nubia Goldstein said other cities experienced similar incidences of “Zoom bombing.”

“If we all remember there was this craziness going on in the country that spurred that and that’s died down and I think it’s time to re-evaluate our position on whether we let our citizens who can’t come to the meetings to have a voice,” said Silveira.

His “referral” will come back at a future council meeting to consider the referral.

Councilman James Casey asked for clarification at the April 8 meeting about what would be allowed if a person sent in comments via email and if the council could pose questions to that person via Zoom.

Both Mayor Javier Lopez and City Manager Doug Dunford clarified that no public comment is allowed on Zoom.

“They attend in person or send an email,” said Dunford, who added that it’s up to the council to change the policy.

Last year Silveira and Councilman James Casey were opposed to shutting out public comment via Zoom but were overruled by Lopez, and Councilmembers Daniel Martinez and Rosalinda Vierra. Before that vote in 2023, Silveira  called the comments “terrible and atrocious,” but cautioned against a knee-jerk reaction to ban all Zoom comments, adding he hated to “take the access away from our constituents … when they can’t make it to the meetings.”

The Sept. 25 Zoom bombing incident came during a public hearing regarding unmet public transit needs in the county. An individual identifying himself as Jim Atkinson used offensive and racially disparaging terms for those who use the city bus. The remark dropped jaws in the audience, including Jean Foletta, StanCOG’s Director of Mobility Programs, standing at the podium.

A second caller who phoned in seemed serious in his comments but then trolled, “We need to purchase as many cattle cars that we can to ship these n*****s and k***s back to their homeland where they came….”

Lopez immediately shut both callers down and suspected the others who lined up in the cue were waiting to pull a similar prank. The mayor called the two callers “a bunch of clowns” and ordered an end to public comments via Zoom due to the lack of decorum. His order was backed by Goldstein “for now” because of “the breach of decorum.”

Not all were happy when the mayor shut down the ability of Zoom users to comment. Ceres resident Gene Yeakley wasn’t present at the meeting but didn’t appreciate the mayor’s actions.

“These people deprived me and some other people from voicing their selves from public communication,” Yeakley told the Courier after the decision.