Updated 3 pm
The second Martha’s Vineyard Commission public hearing reviewing the high school athletic field project was interrupted Thursday night by several people shouting crass and offensive things, forcing the session to close.
The public hearing was continued until Feb. 18.
Adam Turner, executive director of the commission, told The Times in a follow-up phone call that the hearing was taped, and over the next few days they will be releasing the recording to the authorities “so they can review it and figure out who is accountable.”
“They are going to have to deal with what they did,” he said.
But Turner said his primary focus is on moving forward with the project review, and making sure that security measures are put in place to prevent another Zoom bombing.
“We have a major project that is being considered, and we lost a whole meeting,” Turner said.
He added that the meeting crowd swelled above 150 people before the incident, and interested individuals and groups signed on from all over the Island and all over the country to speak and hear testimony.
“What does that do to our ability to consider this project? That, to me, is the more disappointing thing,” he said.
Going forward, the commission will be looking into potential safeguards that allow for rapid intervention if a similar incident occurs.
“We will develop procedures for if this ever happens again — even a person outside the organization who sits in and is an expert in combating this stuff,” Turner said. “We have a major project before us. We need to regroup, do a better job at security, and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The sports complex issue, particularly the synthetic turf field proposed at the high school, has been a contentious issue that’s drawn more than 250 public comments on the MVC website.
Before the Zoom meeting was interrupted, commissioner Jeff Agnoli disclosed that he has a long relationship with the applicant, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, having taught there for “many years.”
Agnoli said he still holds a stipend position as the high school’s GED test administrator. But he said he has “no financial interest in any aspect” of the proposal.
“Despite my relationship with the high school, I believe I can sit in on this application and make a fair and honest decision as to its benefits and detriments,” Agnoli said. He added that he is a new board member of the Vineyard Conservation Society, an organization that has submitted testimony against the installation of synthetic turf at the high school.
Agnoli said he checked with the state Ethics Commission, and they found no conflict of interest in his case.
The initial plan for the hearing was to allow interested groups and members of the public the opportunity to provide testimony, with six members of the Field Fund, an organization advocating for natural grass fields, being allotted one hour in total.
After the Field Fund, interested groups were to provide testimony, followed by members of the public.
“We will continue to have hearings until everyone has had the opportunity to speak,” commissioner Doug Sederholm said.
He noted that testimony regarding the toxicology and chemical testing conducted by experts retained by the commission would not be heard at that time because they want to give every group, including the applicant, ample time to review the results.
Just as development of regional impact coordinator Alex Elvin was about to give an overview of the proposal, a number of people began saying insulting and profane things, specifically targeting commissioners and those in the meeting with profanity. They drew lines on the screen of Elvin’s presentation. Eventually, the online session was closed, and a new link was sent out to the applicants and those registered to speak.
“We just got Zoom bombed,” Sederholm said.
Commission chair Joan Malkin said that because the prior Zoom link was forced to close, it would be unfair to reconvene the meeting and continue with regular business.
“We have not notified everyone who was on the call, and people are entitled to join the hearing after it starts,” Malkin said. “I do not see how we can proceed tonight.”
Commissioner Brian Packish said it is clear that having the meeting would violate open meeting law, having not advertised it 48 hours in advance.
Commissioner Ernie Thomas identified the problem with security in public meetings, and wondered whether people could be required to register beforehand. Malkin said the security issue would be looked into for future meetings.
Commissioner Linda Sibley said, “This is tragic. If we could pursue these people legally, I would like us to do so.”
Both the Field Fund and the high school released statements the following day condemning the Zoom bombing.
“We are sorry to report that the meeting was ‘Zoom bombed’ before anyone was able to testify,” the release from the Field Fund states. “Needless to say, it was an awful experience for all.” The release also encourages individuals to lend their voices to the conversation surrounding the project.
The press release from the high school states, “We are deeply saddened and angered by the very offensive verbal assault and disruption of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission public hearing on the MVRHS athletic fields.”
Additionally, the release says, it is the hope of the high school that the matter is investigated, and the perpetrators are identified and held accountable.
“One of our core values at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School is community. We value the diverse perspectives of all groups as a part of the process of arriving at a thoughtfully built understanding,” the release states.
Updated with comments from the Field Fund and MVRHS.