South Portland councilors see merit, if not savings, in iPads

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Councilors on Monday once again took up the question of whether to pursue paperless city council meetings through the purchase of Apple iPads.

Going digital would mean spending $3,755 more over three years, according to estimates provided by City Manager Jim Gailey during a council workshop, but he and several city councilors said the “opportunity” or “soft” savings more than make up for what looks like a net cost on paper.

After first discussing the proposal earlier this month, the councilors charged Gailey with drafting a cost comparison between continuing with the bulky printed packets and going with iPads. They also asked for a draft policy for councilors using the tablet computers.

The total cost for the iPads over three years — that’s the lifespan expected by the city’s IT director, Shawn Pennington — is $10,703. That price tag includes seven 16 GB tablets each equipped with a 3G network monthly data plan. In comparison, estimated printing costs over three years came in just shy of $6,950.

“There is a bit of the gap between printing savings and iPad costs,” Gailey said, but that gap would be more than made worthwhile by the efficiency afforded by the iPads and in the city pursuing what Gailey and others said was a more sustainable model. Councilor Tom Blake also emphasized the three hours each staff member involved in printing the near 100-page council packets would save each week.

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.

Though most councilors support the initiative, they weren’t in total agreement about whether the $25 per month, per iPad for 3G network access was necessary, especially for councilors who had ready access to Wi-Fi.

“It’s a consideration whether we need the 3G or not,” said Councilor Jim Hughes, who said he has more than one wireless network in his home. “Some councilors would be happy with just Wi-Fi. Maybe they could opt-out.”

Councilors were also uneasy about some key policy provisions. A section in the proposed policy that would require them to replace their iPad if it was stolen was met with criticism, as was another that said violation of the policy would result in councilors losing their iPads.

Because the proposal is for iPad use to be mandatory, thus negating any need for printed packets, Councilor Maxine Beecher wondered whether a councilor would be left inept if they violated the policy and lost their tablet privilege.

Corporate Counsel Sally Daggett attempted to assuage her concerns by explaining that the council would police itself on the policy, and that no punishment could be meted out without council approval.

By the end of the meeting, Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said she felt there was enough support for the iPad initiative to bring it to a council meeting for formal action.

But it remains to be seen whether the real goal of the plan — for the City Council to go paperless — can be achieved; Councilor Alan Livingston said he would still sometimes want printed documents and Mayor De Angelis said she thought one full packet still needed to be available at every meeting in the event of technical difficulty.

“These things do have limitations,” she said.

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