More than 30 people had joined the call for the 9 a.m. meeting, with many of them planning to give public comment on a resolution Commissioner David Nestler had proposed, which would have formally requested that the county commission remove the statue from city limits. Erected in 1915, the statue depicts an unnamed Confederate solider and stands on the steps of the historic courthouse overlooking downtown. While it is located within city limits, the courthouse-turned library is owned by the county.
However, commissioners never got a chance to discuss the resolution or even to make it through the beginning portion of the agenda reserved for commissioners to give individual reports or comments.
Commissioner Barbara Hamilton had just finished giving her report and Nestler was in the middle of reminding those in attendance to support food relief efforts at The Community Table and to shop at Harold’s Supermarket, which has been adversely impacted by the road closure on U.S. 23, when an account named Adira Sahar broke in with a string of racist comments.
The disjointed sentences didn’t have the cadence of a rant — rather, they came across as barbs intended to incite anger, fear or confusion. The male speaker, who did not have any video or avatar associated with the account, made liberal use of a racial slur targeting Black people, claiming to have “25 child Black slaves,” and proclaiming that “Black lives don’t matter,” among other insults, slurs and profanities.
Two other accounts, named Katy Kenz and iPhone — this account featured a dark silhouetted figure on a dark background — also broke in occasionally. Town Clerk Amanda Murajda ejected the three accounts from the meeting and town commissioners, visibly shaken, attempted to continue on with the agenda.
“I guess we’ve now officially been Zoom bombed. I’m surprised it took this long,” said Commissioner Ben Guiney. “At least no one was naked.”
However, the infiltrators weren’t done. An account that had named itself Eric Ridenhour — the same name as the town attorney — began making lewd comments on the chat, and a female voice under an account named Town of Sylva began saying the names of various people in attendance in a creepy, sing-song voice. They also hacked into Murajda’s computer, putting their photos in place of hers, she said.
“I think we need to end this Zoom and start over,” Mayor Lynda Sossamon finally said when it was clear that getting through the agenda would be all but impossible under the current circumstances.
Commissioners then voted to recess the meeting. A new Zoom link was sent out about half an hour later, but the board never resumed the agenda during the approximately hour-long call, which was mostly filled with silence as town staff worked to manage technical aspects of the endeavor. Staff were clearly concerned about sharing the link too widely or letting unknown participants in, fearing a repeat of the earlier episode. Even as some would-be participants were waiting to be admitted to the meeting, the board was discussing — before officially reconvening the meeting — whether it could limit attendance only to those signed up to give public comment and allow everyone else to watch a recording of the meeting later.
"Right now we're violating the open meetings law because we haven't let everyone on and we're discussing things," said Sossamon. "If we can, please wait until Amanda (Murajda) gets everyone on. Then we can have a discussion and resume our meeting."
When the official meeting did finally come back into session just after 10:30 a.m., it lasted only seven minutes — long enough for commissioners to decide to adjourn the session and schedule a special-called, in-person meeting for 5:30 p.m Monday, July 22 — location to be announced later — in order to finish the agenda without the interference of Zoom-bombers. The decision to adjourn was due to concerns about the being able to secure the link from Zoom bombers while still allowing access to the general public, said Sossamon.
"We do not and will not tolerate abusive behavior," said Sossamon as she brought the meeting back into session. "I apologize to all those that were on the meeting."
Within minutes of the meeting's adjournment, the Sylva Police Department contacted the State Bureau of Investigation for assistance in a criminal investigation that will aim to identify the people responsible and apply any applicable criminal charges, said a press release the town sent out at 2:30 p.m. today. Anyone with information as to who is responsible should call 828.586.1911.