South Portland council eyes paperless route with iPads

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors could soon join middle schoolers in receiving taxpayer-purchased iPads.

At a special workshop late Monday night, the council discussed a proposal from City Manager Jim Gailey to go paperless by purchasing iPads for each of the seven councilors.

The iPads would allow councilors to go paperless, give them easier access to their city email, and reduce the amount of time staff would have to spend compiling information packets for councilors.

But there also is the possibility residents will think councilors are just getting new toys.

By all accounts, councilors go through lots of paper. Every week, they receive three-ring binders full of orders, proposals, position papers, attachments and plans. These packets are printed and put together by the city clerk’s office or the city manager’s office. Some documents are printed for each councilor three times: once for a workshop meeting, once for a first reading and once again for final approval.

The packet for Monday’s 4 1/2-hour meeting, which Gailey described as “light” in content, was about 90 pages long.

Six years ago, the council approved a laptop computer initiative in an effort to go paperless, but the push toward technology wasn’t mandatory and some councilors stuck with paper, Gailey said. As time went on, the laptop plan faded away.

This time, Gailey said, the council should adopt a mandatory paperless policy.

“If the council wants to move in this direction, it’s got to be all or nothing,” he said.

In addition to going paperless, Gailey said the iPads would also save staff time and make it easier for councilors to use their city email addresses, which is critical to record-keeping.

Councilors could spend as little as about $3,500 for 16-gigabyte WiFi-only iPads or as much as $6, 500 for 16-gigabyte 3G iPads with one year of data service. Gailey, councilors and the city’s IT director, Shawn Pennington, all lean toward the 3G models.

“The 3G would be a requirement,” Pennington said. “If you don’t do that, you’re less mobile than the printed packet.”

Councilor Tom Coward said he’d support the initiative as long as there’s no net cost associated with the purchase. He said he is worried about what residents would think of councilors buying themselves tablet computers.

“I think taxpayers are going to look at this and say, ‘these councilors are getting these things, taking them home, watching movies and doing whatever on them,'” he said. “I want to make sure there are real, honest savings in this.”

City Clerk Sue Mooney said the city spends about $90 per month printing documents for the city council – $35 in paper for council meetings, $20 in paper for workshops (a guess, she admitted) and another $35 or so in toner and maintenance.

Data plans alone for seven 3G iPads would cost $175 a month, according to Gailey’s memo.

In an interview after the meeting, the city manager disputed Mooney’s numbers, saying he is convinced the paperless route would end up being more efficient in the long-run. And even if the city spends a little more on the iPads, the savings in staff time would be hard to quantify, he said.

“You can’t put a dollar amount on the savings to the employees’ time,” Gailey said. “If the person isn’t sitting at a copier for three hours, they’ll do other work. There’s a benefit there, if not a dollar value.”

Councilors also discussed the public perception of councilors getting what some might see as $630 toys, with Councilor Patti Smith even volunteering to give up half of her $3,000 stipend so residents wouldn’t think the councilors are making off with the devices just for fun.

But when Pennington offered to limit the iPads to apps necessary only for council business, most councilors just shook their heads.

“It just seems childish,” Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said. “If you’re going to pay for the data plan, but say councilors can’t do anything on them, it just seems silly. Taxpayers are not going to pay any less, whether we play games on them or not.”

De Angelis said to her the cost is less important, and what really matters is whether the council wants to make the commitment to go paperless. She also said the tablets could become a distraction at council meetings.

Gailey said there should be some restrictions on what can and can’t be done on the iPads, but that flexibility is also important.

“The goal isn’t to purchase these things to supplement the individual councilors’ computing needs,” he said. “That’s not the purpose of getting iPads for work.”

Gailey was asked by the council to compile a cost comparison of the iPad initiative and the current paper-based system, as well as a proposed usage policy. He’ll bring that to the next workshop, when councilors will again take up the issue before taking formal action during a regular meeting.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Mario on Twitter: @riocarmine.