Mountain View Voice

News - August 20, 2010

Introducing the iCouncil

Council members test iPads to save time, money and paper

by Daniel DeBolt

In hopes of saving reams and reams of paper, three City Council members will be ditching their inches-thick weekly reports for iPads next month in an experiment.

Part of every City Council member's job is to read a staff report on each agenda item within the five days before every council meeting.

But when she recently purchased a new iPad, it occurred to council member Margaret Abe-Koga that lugging around those massive weekly staff report binders, as thick as 6 inches on busy weeks, made little sense when she could read the reports on her iPad. After all, this is Silicon Valley, saving paper is always good and the city could always use another way to save some money.

Finance director Patty Kong estimated that, at 25 cents a page, the city could save $18,000 to $20,000 a year if the entire City Council used iPads to read the reports, and even more if the city's 11 department heads joined in as well. That doesn't include the cost of having a private courier service deliver the packets to council member's homes on Thursdays.

Kong said that the seven-member council had 21,000 pages, collectively, sent to them between April and June this year.

"The idea is to cut back on administrative work," said IT manager Steve Rodriguez. "We've only got two people in the copy center." On those days when the staff reports are being made "everything else stops."

Testing the iPad

As part of the test, the city has budgeted for two iPads at $600 each for council technology committee members John Inks and Mike Kasperzak to use. Abe-Koga will be using her own iPad.

There may be a few drawbacks to going paperless, Abe-Koga said. For example, it is not yet possible to highlight or write on portions of a document while using an iPad as one would on paper report.

"It's fine for me but not everyone may like it," Abe-Koga said of using the iPad. "Maybe people won't like the fact they can't scribble on the page."

Then there is also the issue of accessibility for some members of the public for whom the city now prints a few reference packets every week, some of whom may have no access to the Internet. The city plans to keep printing the reports on paper for those few, Rodriguez said.

Online records system

A key component of going paperless, say Abe-Koga and Rodriguez, is "streamlining" the city's online document retrieval system to make it more user-friendly. Retrieving a staff report now involves navigating a maze-like file system and slowly loading the reports a page at a time. Reading reports as efficiently as possibly involves finding a tiny button to download reports as PDF files in portions limited to 75 pages at a time.

Those who are less determined and tech savvy are unlikely to get that far. But it may soon be possible to download the entire weekly report packet in one click.

"Right now if you want a staff report you have to go in all these little folders," Abe-Koga said. "We are trying to see if we can format it so if you go to council meetings from July 27 to see the agenda you can click on an agenda item and it will take you to a staff report."

The documents will also be reformatted into a higher-quality Adobe PDF format so they can be read on the iPad application Goodreader.

Reformatting the reports so that they can be viewed on an iPad is "maybe an extra 20 minutes' worth of work," every week, Rodriguez said. "But all the extra effort goes away and we still get the same result."

An added benefit is that the staff reports could become text-searchable and indexed by a search engine, Rodriguez said. That is impossible with the current format, which is simply a photo of the paper document. The lack of a text search function has been pointed out by the likes of council candidate Dan Waylonis and Mayor Ronit Bryant, who has complained about having to use the Voice archives to recall when the council had discussed a certain topic.

If the idea gains support, council members already have funds to buy their own iPads. Each member is given $3,600 every four-year term to buy electronic equipment, such as a cell phone, computer or fax machine, to aid them in their jobs. Members receive another $500 a year for "management development,t" which could also go towards the purchase of an iPad, Kong said.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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